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What Autistic Students Need from Schools

At a Glance

In this blog post, we'll cover the basics of what autistic students needs from their teachers and schools.

As a teacher advocate, you have the ability to leverage your position in the system on behalf of your students, navigating bureaucracy and applying your professional skills.

The Council for Exceptional Children released a set of professional standards for advocacy that offers some starting points on advocating for new policies and improving the application of existing policies.

We know every autistic student will have individualized needs, but what do our autistic students generally need from the system? And how can you as a teacher advocate help to shore up the gaps when the system is falling short? 

In this post we will look into some areas where autistic students can generally use a strong, proactive advocate and how you can work towards meeting those common needs.

Putting Student Needs First

It may seem like obvious sentiment that student needs should be the first priority in advocacy, but all too often other priorities find a sneaky way of grabbing hold of our attention.

Whether it’s focusing on a particular behavior, prioritizing a schedule, or lionizing a particular educational principle (“Students need to learn to do certain tasks without supports.”), it’s easy for even the most well-intentioned teacher to lose sight of the student without intending to.

Perhaps one of the most valuable things you can do for your students as a teacher advocate is to make the active choice to prioritize listening to your students and their needs so that they do not slip out of focus.

Meeting Student Needs Across Settings

As your student’s teacher, you will naturally take a great interest in making sure your students’ needs are met in your own classroom, but as a member of the school community your influence can have a meaningful impact on all of the settings in which your student may be learning during the school day.

CEC professional standards directly advocate reporting when a given resource is inadequate and to “promote corrective action” while monitoring to make sure student placement is appropriate.

By maintaining a basic awareness of what your students’ schedule outside of your class might look like, you can engage in basic assessments regarding whether they are receiving the services they are entitled to as part of a free appropriate public education.

Working With General Education Teachers and Administrators

Another example of a setting where a teacher advocate can make a difference is with a special education student’s general education teachers.

One CEC standard includes working with other professionals to “improve the provision of special education and related services.”

Much like a general educator’s expertise in core academic curriculum helps to fill an important gap, your knowledge of a particular student’s needs and how to support or accommodate them can prove to be a crucial resource to teachers who need to focus on many students all at once.

Likewise, administrators often have a better understanding of how to implement a particular change at a systemic level but may require extensive input from teachers to understand how to prioritize their time.

While a teacher advocate cannot guarantee the cooperation of their coworkers, they can position themselves as willing to assist colleagues who wish to be advocates for their students too.

When you have general educators and administrators on board with your mission, you can encourage them to follow your active focus on making sure it is student needs that are prioritized first.

Full Inclusion At School

For many special education students, the fight for inclusion is an uphill battle. The question of inclusion of autistic students has received its share of academic attention, as has the nature of systemic bias that students with disabilities can face.

The reality is that sometimes the institutional path of least resistance is to exclude certain students from certain settings, and in the absence of a teacher advocate there is no guarantee that any individual will step up to make sure the system does right by the individual student.

A Stronger Community Understanding

While special education students inherently exist in the educational spaces where they are placed, there is often a gap between them and the broader school community.

This can manifest in a myriad of challenges to inclusive education, from lower general education teacher expectations to social exclusion to a focus on academics at the expense of a student’s broader needs.

While it is entirely possible for a school to come together in recognition of the differentiated needs that some students are bound to have over time and to coordinate all of the different expertise within the system to create the most supportive possible environment, this process is not likely to happen spontaneously!

It typically requires some highly motivated individual to make sure everyone else stays on board and does their part until it becomes integrated into your school’s routine procedures.

Every school is different, and you may wonder about the best way to manage your particular general education teachers or your particular administrators or how to encourage better social integration with your general student body. The most likely answer is that you will need their perspective to proceed, and the best way to do that is to engage with them on these challenges and opportunities.

For those who are accustomed to working in educational settings in the United States, you may have noticed how the law tries to cultivate this type of cooperation through the legal requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Before we talk about the full extent of the ways you can go above and beyond advocating for your students, we think it is important to talk about what is necessary according to American federal law.

This toolkit was designed for the benefit of teachers and school professionals who are seeking out ways to better serve their autistic students. As a special educator, you are often both the main advocate for your students’ needs and the main enforcer of rules and expectations imposed by your town, district, county, state, or country.

Meeting a particular student’s needs, especially needs that aren’t tied to well established practices, can require the participation of stakeholders across the school or district and it goes without saying that none of them are going to organize themselves!

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