Unexpected Lessons from a Weird Year
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
We all had trouble with the disruptions caused by the pandemic. We know that many children—neurotypical children included—regressed academically and socially; we know that many teens and adults experienced negative changes to their mental health. Even with all that, there have been upsides, and we are now at a place where we can make things better moving forward.
Many people in the autistic community have expressed relief about how things have changed. Many have flourished with a decrease in sensory overload. Staying at home has allowed people to control their environment, providing a sense of calm and safety that wasn’t present before.
Some of the things put in place in early 2020 (curbside/grocery pick-up, telehealth appointments, virtual social events, remote working) were preferred by autistic individuals. Most are still available in some form, but if these options should end, we will need to find ways to support the autistic community so that they can maintain that sense of calm and safety.
While there is an urge to make things go back to “normal,” we have to ask ourselves, WHY? The “normal” world before the pandemic was not autism-friendly; many autistic people—children and adults—were expected to adjust their behavior so they could fit in. Maybe we need to use this unprecedented time to spur changes. Yes, there need to be changes at a higher, societal level, but as individuals, we each have the power to make changes that can make life better for the autistic community.
Let’s plan to make those changes NOW!
As a teacher, what changes can you make to your classroom to support autistic students?
Utilize Structured Teaching
Use daily visual schedules
Set up the classroom in an organized and structured way
Use work systems
Learn more here: https://teacch.com/
Support each student’s Preferred Mode of Communication
Respect and honor a student’s preferred way to communicate, whether they are speaking or nonspeaking, whether they use something high-tech (such as a tablet) or something no- or low-tech (such as a letter board).
If a student is nonspeaking and uses a device (or other AAC) to communicate, that device should be present AT ALL TIMES and should be used in all aspects of the classroom.
WE ALL HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE HEARD
Learn more here: https://communication4all.org/
Provide sensory support
Autistic individuals find sensory regulation in a variety of ways, and some students learn best when they have access to sensory input throughout their school day.
Ensure that your classroom is sensory-friendly—dim the lights, keep background noise to a minimum, avoiding wearing scented lotions/fragrances, keep the environment free of clutter/other visual distractions, provide a calming area.
Learn more here: https://sensoryprocessing101.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/100-Classroom-Sensory-Strategies.pdf
Support social emotional learning
It is normal for all kids to sometimes become emotionally dyregulated! Some kids will need more support when it comes to figuring out what they are feeling and what they can do about it.
Using visual supports or a social emotional curriculum, such as The Zones of Regulation, is a good way to introduce the concept and provide guidance throughout the day.
Learn more here: https://www.zonesofregulation.com/learn-more-about-the-zones.html ; https://www.5pointscale.com/
As an employer, what changes can you make to your workplace to support autistic employees?
Offer working from home as an option—either full-time or hybrid
Have a sensory-friendly workspace available
Soundproofing or have headphones available
A quiet area for employees to get away from distractions
Offer flexibility in work hours or schedule
Focus on the tasks to be completed rather than the number of hours worked
If an employee works better with a late start, support that!
Offer and support different communication options, even for meetings
If someone has trouble communicating with others face-to-face, allow them to communicate via email, chat/instant messaging (Slack, for example), or another way
Learn more here: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/program-areas/autism
As a citizen, what can you do out in the community to support autistic individuals from day to day?
There is nothing more valuable than learning from the autistic community
Read books, articles, and blogs by autistic writers
Listen to a podcast by an autistic person
Follow an autistic artist or influencer on social media
Be open to having your perception changed
Offer support instead of judgement
Don’t make assumptions about why a person is behaving a certain way—they might be experiencing sensory dysregulation and need understanding rather than judgement
Learn more here: https://autisticadvocacy.org/