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How should we be responding to curious children when they ask about their autistic, or neurodivergent peers?

Kristy Forbes
Autism & Neurodiversity Support Specialist
inTune Pathways

I often meet with educators who speak with me about how to respond to classmates of autistic or ADHD students around explaining their 'behaviour'.

The truth is, many educators work toward being positive and achieving great outcomes for all children, however as a society, and particularly as professionals, we have been conditioned to think a certain way about diversity that still encourages working toward outcomes of normalisation.

And this is what we've been taught to do.

We believe we're working in line with inclusion, with making accommodations, with understanding difference.

But it isn't aligned with acceptance.

When I ask many educators how they're framing a child's difference with the other children who are curious, I will often hear the same thing.

"We explain to them that everybody is a learner and some of us take longer to learn than others".

Now I want to make this clear - I am an educator by trade.

This is what we learn.

And more often than not, we are good people who want our students to be comfortable, to achieve the same outcomes as their peers and to excel.

Until we know differently, we just don't know better.

I explain to educators that this comes across to other children as an understanding that some day, their autistic peers will be just like them-non autistic.

It is the equivalent of saying a person in a wheelchair will eventually no longer use the wheelchair if they continue to practise not using it.

The language we use around autistic and autism advocacy and education is EVERYTHING.

When we use the term "person with autism", which in educational institutions such as universities where all of our educators, allied health and various professionals are learning, this often encourages non autistic people to adopt the belief that autism is an add on; that we are a person with a side of disorder that can be corrected.

We know this to be true when we look closely at most therapies targeted at autistic children.

Social skills programs teach autistic children how to speak, behave and adopt the social thinking of non autistic children.

Compliance therapies such as applied behaviour analysis strive toward teaching autistic children to appear 'indistinguishable from their peers'.

But let's be clear about this; autistic children will never be non autistic.

No matter how they appear to behave, speak or look.

This is the outcome of masking and if you look, you will find research supporting the evidence around poor mental health outcomes as the result of masking.

Believing and teaching the theory that autistic children learn slower than non autistic children how to be non autistic is like believing giraffes to be lions, or dolphins to be penguins someday.

It's not going to happen.

No matter how we appear, no matter how we behave, no matter how we speak,

We will always be autistic.

And this is to be celebrated.

So how should we be responding to curious children when they ask about their autistic, or neurodivergent peers?

By constructing curriculum via diversity, true acceptance of diversity.

Not the kind where we tell our students that "everyone is the same" and then add some reference to being kind to those who aren't.

By making it clear and known and celebrated that we are different.

That some of us think and do differently because our difference in being is a natural variation in human evolution.

That we shouldn't make assumptions about a person's capacity or intelligence based on how they look or how they sound or how their body moves.

That we also shouldn't undermine or dismiss a person's challenges based on how they look or how they sound or how their body moves.

By teaching the difference between disability and disorder.

By counteracting media portrayals of autistic children trapped behind walls, fences, glass.

By no longer using a puzzle piece to represent our autistic peers.

By teaching that autistic children are complete and whole people.

By teaching that being autistic is perfectly normal for us.

By teaching that many of the things society believes about autism are myths.

By explaining the physical expressions of our autistic being.

"When our friend Mia flaps her hands like this, sometimes it means she's happy, other times she might be sad. We can ask her if she needs help or space."

"When James is upset, with his hands over his ears, he's letting us know that he needs space and quiet until he's ready to join us again."

"Jennifer has just shown me a really incredible way of thinking about this problem and I'd like to share it with the class. She's able to think this way BECAUSE OF her autistic brain." (And not despite it).

It's crucial for us to be working towards true acceptance, and to be teaching and instilling the authentic value of diversity in classrooms.

When children don't understand something, when they are taught that their neurodivergent peers are disordered or not quite 'normal' but they'll get there, children are often unsatisfied about what this all means.

And when we don't understand things, we poke and prod.

I've seen it time and time again in the classrooms of early childhood centres, primary and secondary classrooms and for some children, the poking and prodding, the natural curiosity intensifies to the point of bullying and harassment.

Diversity may not be considered so much as a form of inadequacy, a threat or an inconvenience by those that view it in such a way (and yes, many do) if we begin speaking about it authentically.

Autistic people are considered (and labelled) as clinically disordered (Autism Spectrum Disorder), undervalued in the same environments as their non autistic peers and it's time to begin real and serious change around this.

We are a community that brings immense value to this world.

We are often helpers, healers, deeply connected to our environment.

We are pathologically misunderstood and consistently recognised as second rate non autistic people.

There is an ocean of autistic people willing and able to come into your classrooms, your workplace, your homes, and to help you and your community understand and value our diversity..

When we look at the outcomes of being researched by non autistic people, by the education around what autism is delivered by non autistic people, we can see the need for autistic voices to be predominantly leading.

Nothing about us, without us.

Learn about how to be an ally.

Try asking us..

About our brilliant, beautiful and luminous being; autism.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine

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