Autistic Pride Flag by Autistic Empire is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at https://www.autisticempire.com/autistic-pride

Autistic Pride Flag by Autistic Empire is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at https://www.autisticempire.com/autistic-pride

The following article is an adaptation of a case study response I once developed for a master’s level course about supporting diverse learners in an educational setting. The research I undertook to develop this response was extensive. I sent it to a dear friend whose sons are autistic (as is she), and she felt heard, so I felt to publish this abridged version, so others don’t need to do the research I did.

I cannot provide the original case study as it is unpublished material, however, I do profile the learner at the beginning of the piece. Despite the online format, I have left the academic references in, because this is what has informed this entirely theoretical response. These have all been provided in a reference list.

Introduction

Autism was the most frequently cited disability by participants in the 2021 Mission Australia Youth Survey, which surveys young people aged 15 to 19 years. In 2022, ABS figures indicated that almost 83 percent of this group were engaged in study, and 66 percent of all students from 15-74 years were enrolled in secondary school.  Taking into account total population figures, this places more than 3million of these students are in our secondary classrooms.

In the preamble to the Australian Curriculum, which prescribes the starting point for all F-10 syllabuses in the country (if not used directly) The Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (ACARA) included an edict that the curriculum must be accessible to all young people. This means teachers and school leaders must facilitate learning that is as suitable and experientially appropriate for autistic youth, as the education provided for neurotypical students.

In this response to a case study, I endeavoured to first identify the strengths, weaknesses and associated learning behaviours and needs of 15-year-old autistic learner. Let’s call him ‘Joe Awesome’.

Subsequently, current research was analysed for possible strategies, which were then evaluated for their alignment with supporting literature and Joe’s identified needs. The results of both the analysis of the student data and the literature-referenced evaluations consequently informed a set of recommendations for supporting Joe’s academic, social-emotional and practical needs — with particular focus on the importance of embracing an empowered autistic identity (Mantzalas et al., 2022).

Understanding Joe: Cognition, social interaction, and the role of identity

Joe is 15 and in Year 9 at a large inner-city school. He was diagnosed at age eight with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and anxiety and depression more recently at age 14. Born two months prematurely, no other known health issues impact his learning or his life. Joe’s family is professionally successful and supportive of the school. Socially, Joe appears shy but does not experience bullying. He spends extensive time alone (online) at home and school, despite indicating he would like more friends.

While Joe knows he has ASD, he is reportedly unable to express what this means or how it affects him. Although he may lack the identity awareness to explain explicitly how autism affects him, implicit awareness is apparent, as he does feel reluctant to accept help from teachers for fear of looking different.  Further complexity exists in Joe’s anxiety, which was managed with medication until the end of Year 8, indicating symptoms have been unmanageable with medication alone for up to a year. The combination of these factors may be contributing to Joe’s disengagement and distress, potentially explaining Joe’s increasing anxiety around missed deadlines and slipping grades — culminating in two major meltdowns in the last 2 weeks.  

This could be a case of “autistic burnout”, which Mantzalas et al. (2022) found often occurs first in adolescence due to ‘fitting in fatigue’, as a result of “masking”, “systemic, pervasive lack of autism awareness”, “discrimination and stigma” (p. 52). Notably, the case study makes no mention of sensory sensitivity or repetitive behaviours — despite their prevalence in autistic people of all ages (Corden et al., 2021). Motor skills are also not mentioned, despite a reported 80 percent of autistic people experiencing movement problems (Green et al., 2009) — a difficulty researchers have correlated with social functioning challenges (Ohara et al., 2019). It is unclear if this is because these are not present, or they because they have been “camouflaged” (Mantzalas et al., 2022, p. 51).

Joe’s age might indicate hormone surges have contributed (Caskey & Anfara, 2014), yet, working independently requires executive function, a relaxed/focus mindset, and access to working memory — all impeded by anxiety and depression symptoms (Killu et al., 2016). However, Joe’s NAPLAN data shows no evidence of ‘test anxiety’ (Poorman et al., 2019), and his general skills in comprehension and mathematics were still above average at last testing — although, whether his levels are even higher than that, and anxiety diluted his performance is not something we can tell from the data.  

Joe balances challenges with various strengths as a learner, all of which can be leveraged to support his learning experiences. Joe’s knowledge about aircraft and flight provides a readily available mediator for other academic goals and indicates he has considerable skill in synthesising complex information (Gunn & Delafield-Butt, 2016). Joe loves to “answer and ask questions, both to provide information about his own interests, and to gather information he seeks. Dispositionally, he has a drive to succeed, is persistent; and has shown increasing independence, for example, in travelling to school alone, and with conscientiousness and mindfulness of assignments and deadlines. These are all dispositional strengths that can be reactivated to support him back on track.

Current strategies: An evaluation through curricular, interpersonal and identity lenses

Simply streaming misses the mark

He has been placed in streamed high-ability classes, which initially resulted in decreased aggression. While placement in the highest stream aligns with Joe’s high achievement — evidenced by NAPLAN and grades in Years 7 and 8 — he receives no specialised support from the school’s onsite special education unit, which can be seen as misaligned to the Salamanca statement requiring schools to offer “a continuum of support and services” to “match” student needs (UNESCO, 1994, p. 12).  The “equity” demanded by the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration, is achieved not by ‘equality’ in provision, but by “all young Australians” accessing what they require (Education Council [EC] 2019, p. 4).

Nevertheless, while no external specialised support is noted, it remains unstated whether teachers adjusted “curricula, organizational arrangements, teaching strategies” UNESCO, 1994, p. 12).  Declines were greatest across literacy-rich subjects, such as English, languages, humanities — and science, which is increasingly mediated through literacy during secondary school, as science communication requirements intensify (Bresina et al., 2018). Targeted intra-class differentiation was warranted to support Joe through the Year 9 English shift towards higher levels of cognition and abstraction — evidenced by yellow highlighting in Figure 1 below.

This explicit shift to “levels of abstraction” indicates a requirement to make links between literal and implied meaning (ACARA, 2018), representing an area of challenge for autistic students (Price et al., 2020). Falling grades evidence problems beyond English —logically — considering abstraction extends across all disciplines and mediates how we interpret a variety of texts (Price et al., 2020).  If the acceleration in abstraction has been insufficiently scaffolded and his interests not engaged, Joe’s sense of competence may have diminished (Gunn & Delafield-Butt, 2016).

An opportunity missed

Notably, the case study includes no reference to operationalising Joe’s specialised interest in aircrafts to support his achievement — an opportunity lost, when “following a restricted interest [sic] may enlist principal components of learning” (Gunn & Delafield-Butt, 2016, p. 410). Hereafter, this paper will use ‘specialised interest’, as “deficit-based terminology pathologises the interests of autistic people rather than celebrating their knowledge” (Monk et al., 2022, p. 2).

Coding his knowledge as a ‘restriction’, or simply ignoring it is ill-advised considering the established link achievement and school engagement (Jang et al., 2012). Collie et al.’s (2018) mathematics research found that engagement in learning can be “switched on… and off” not only by “perceived competence” — but also according to how much the learner ‘values’ the learning (p. 3). This is especially concerning for Joe, considering McCauley et al. (2017) found that self-esteem is “associated with depressive symptoms”, with reliable measures indicating autistic youth have “significantly lower” ratings than neurotypical youth (p. 407).

Socialising or assimilation: The difference matters

A second strategy described in the case study is a whole-school home-school partnership-focussed support strategy involving Joe, Joe’s family, school support team, external providers (counsellor/psychologist), classroom teachers, and deputy principal (DP). Reported information exchange with Joe’s parents and their ‘willingness to help’ indicates open communication channels, and yet, whether the parents feel engaged as ‘co-educators’ with shared educational goals is not apparent (Hart et al., 2022). Also not entirely clear from the case study are the goals for Joe’s support strategy. Time in the library can be seen as a ‘relief’ strategy, allowing Joe to decompress — yet, considering social inclusion contributes considerably to wellbeing, White et al. (2018) caution that this potentially maladaptive strategy of avoidance reduces “opportunity for rewarding experiences that promote social growth” and may contribute to anxiety and depression (p. 82).

Joe is concerned about looking different, but he is neurodivergent, so, actually, he is different — and according to Raymaker et al. (2020) — when autistic children and adults are encouraged to ‘blend in’ and adopt ‘adaptive behaviours’ to appear neurotypical, not only is it exhausting, but it codes their differences as deficiencies. A by-product of this self-perception is that any ‘special help’ required reinforces this deficit thinking (Kapp et al., 2013). Addressing deficit thinking is especially relevant for autistic students, considering Corden et al. (2021) found that “dissatisfaction with autistic personal identity predicted lower self-esteem, and more autism pride predicted higher self-esteem” (p 1).

Depending on the nature and goals of the counselling he has received and the culture at home, his autistic identity may have been de-emphasised, focussing instead on acquiring adaptive behaviours, which may have ‘expired’ as peer behaviour changes. Consequently, he may be receiving frequent negative feedback when using them (Mantzalas et al., 2022).

Academic, emotional, and pragmatic impacts of embracing an empowered autistic identity: Recommendations

Content as motivator: Passion-paved engagement

Recoding specialised interests as a strength can leverage passions to promote engagement and learning, while honouring autistic identities — as evidenced by the societal custom of ‘specialising’ and the respect shown to ‘experts’ (Silberman, 2015). Joe’s aircraft knowledge was acquired through an inquisitive disposition, but also cognitions like sorting, memorising, summarising, and paraphrasing (Preston et al., 2015) — all “intentional mental actions” required for effective reading comprehension (McCartney et al., 2015, p. 130).

Equally compelling is Gunn and Delafield-Butt (2016) assertion that the autistic people’s specialised interests are “inseparable from their sense of self” (p. 413). Focussed attention on Joe’s existing passion and research skills offers a springboard from which to broaden his reading comprehension, while developing his sense of pride in his identity (Corden et al., 2021; Price et al., 2020).

Structured social interaction as a pedagogy

Reciprocal teaching involves predictable systems and fixed roles which will scaffold Joe’s task management and social interaction (Reading Rockets, n.d.), activating Joe’s comfort with asking and answering questions. Release time with a teacher will allow Joe to observe ‘think-alouds’ about aircraft-relevant texts, with explicit instruction in interpreting implied meaning (Grindle et al., 2019). Aside from returning an effect size of 0.64 in Hattie’s (2009) high impact teaching strategies, technology-supported solutions such as CAST’s Strategic Reader scaffold metacognition, improving reading comprehension scores in students with learning disabilities (Hall et al., 2015; Victorian Government, 2017). 

Furthermore, reframing Joe’s specialised interest as positive also supports his peers to develop more nuanced and positive conceptions of autistic people. According to Sasson et al. (2017) social difficulties “arise not just from those with ASD themselves, but also from the perceptions, judgments, and social decisions made by those around them” (p. 1). For this reason, focussing on Joe’s strengths can be combined with explicit education in embracing diversity, via a prominent Languages pedagogy (Liddicoat & Scarino, 2013).

Making connections: Intercultural education for inclusivity and critical literacy

Critical cultural awareness is linked to critical literacy, which, while noted as a potential challenge for Joe, resonates with stated goals of the general capabilities for Intercultural Understanding and Literacy (ACARA, n.d.; Morgan et al., 2021). Developed using the intercultural learning cycle (ILC) in Figure 2, critical awareness involves noticing, comparing and, importantly, reflecting, before integrating what is learnt into future interactions/interpretations (Byram, 2021; Liddicoat & Scarino, 2013).  This strategy aligns with reading comprehension methods of activating and developing background knowledge, self-questioning, predicting, and summarising (Hellerstein-Yehezkel, 2017; Reading Rockets, n.d.; Solis et al., 2012).

Figure 2. The Intercultural Learning Cycle (Liddicoat & Scarino, 2013)

Figure 2. The Intercultural Learning Cycle (Liddicoat & Scarino, 2013)

Nevertheless, a further benefit for Joe is expected. Intercultural competence means ‘embracing’ diversity. Consequently, developing these prosocial capabilities in Joe’s peers increases their potential to share the load of ‘translation’ (Milton, 2012) — supporting the formation of social networks for Joe (Sasson et al., 2017; Zamzow, 2022). 

Feedback for learning and confidence

Joe’s reluctance to accept help could stem from anxiety at ‘being evaluated’ (Killu et al., 2016) — compounded by difficulties “correctly interpret[ing] and learn[ing] from social feedback” (McCauley et al., 2019, p. 409). Therefore, verbal feedback should be well-timed, delivered in a neutral tone, positively-front-loaded, and literal (Killu et al., 2016; Carless & Winstone, 2020). Flexible, online opportunities for self/teacher-assessment against explicit criteria can reduce anxiety (Jonsson, 2020) — reducing the need to interpret social signals (Jonsson et al., 2018). 

Autistic burnout: A delicate balance of stressors and supports

Raymaker et al. (2020) summarise the “attributions and dynamics described by participants” in their conceptual model of ‘autistic burnout’ (Figure 2 below).

Figure 2. Autistic Burnout Conceptual Model (Raymaker et al., 2020, p. 139)

Figure 2. Autistic Burnout Conceptual Model (Raymaker et al., 2020, p. 139)

A teacher can facilitate “relief” through adjustments/accommodations offering a ‘relief valve’ before meltdown is imminent (Raymaker et al., 2020, p. 139). These include providing breaks from group/class work with digital sessions — also ‘filling Joe’s cup’ with access to specialised interests (Koegel et al., 2013; Grindle et al., 2019). Other adjustments might include establishing a ‘sensory room’ or conducting ‘an environmental audit’ in the classroom, including noise, lights, and textures — all informed by consultation with Joe (Qld DoE, 2022; Raymaker et al., 2020, p. 139).

The home-school partnership: The roles of all stakeholders in Joe’s support

Identifying family expectations as a stressor, Raymaker et al. (2020) recommend raising awareness about the how it feels to be autistic. They note that much of the current literature focusses on carer burnout, reinforcing deficit thinking. These concepts could be carefully shared with Joe’s family, in Hart et al.’s (2022) construction of “parents as ‘co-educators’” — acknowledging the shared objectives of parents and schools (p. 1). Developing a ‘supportive education collective’ with input from specialists, and a ‘reading group’ resourced by the ‘Autistic Voices’ network, can balance the ‘studying of autistic people’ with ‘listening to autistic people’ (AutismCRC, 2020; Willingham, 2020).

Importantly, home-school collaboration can support Joe’s access to the autistic community, via networks such as “I Can Network’, offering a safe space to help Joe build an autistic identity and enjoy a supportive peer group (I CAN Network, 2022). The case study omits mention of the school’s autistic community, despite the present of other autistic students being statistically likely (Autism SA, 2022). Autism lunch clubs have been shown to increase inclusion, supporting social development and create “feelings of happiness” (Inclusive School Communities, n.d.).

Education collectives: Seeking and applying constructive feedback improves outcomes

Support and constructive feedback from my direct supervisor on LA-specific aspects of programming and delivery and specifics about Joe’s development can occur through class observations and reviewing post-class teacher reflections.  Feedback from the leadership team is vital — specifically the DP, considering their direct one-on-one meetings with Joe — to support my practice. Inviting other teachers to observe could forge a partnership where insights/resources are pooled for Joe’s Joeefit. Each element of feedback will be referenced against the shared goals developed in the home-school partnership, thus evaluating the effectiveness of strategies and approaches.

Encouraging each of Joe’s teachers to join the ‘education collective’, with possible expansion to a more generalised ‘autism acceptance’ education collective expands the support for Joe and to the broader autistic community at school. Distinguishing autism ‘awareness’ from autism ‘acceptance’, the autistic community encourages allies to consult with the community and embrace autistic identities as a valid way to be, thus reducing deficit thinking (Sasson et al., 2017; Willingham, 2020). Most importantly, Joe’s voice must be privileged, through frequent formative assessment and check-ins to appraise learning and engagement (Sasson et al., 2017). Finally, in consultation with diversity and inclusion, and leadership, teachers can access supports through the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data, which facilitates monitoring of adjustments and provides support for teachers and schools (CoA, 2021).

Conclusion

Joe Awesome is a 15-year-old autistic learner whose coping strategies may have expired or may not actually have been supporting his internal experience of being autistic in a neurotypical-mediated world (Mantzalas et al., 2022). Recent research indicates that masking or “camouflaging” can lead to increased anxiety and “autistic burnout” (Raymaker et al., 2020, p. 132,139).

This paper has adopted this lens when evaluating existing strategies and proposing additional strategies — informed by pedagogical literature in the relevant teaching areas (English and Languages). Equally referenced is autistic identity discourse, dating back to Milton’s (2012) conception of ‘the ‘mismatch’ between neuro-divergent and neurotypical communication cultures. Mediated by this lens of autistic empowerment (Mantzalas et al., 2022), proposed strategies synthesise identity-based Languages pedagogies (Byram, 2021), critical thinking frameworks (Scarino et al., 2009), and evidence-based reading comprehension strategies (Solis et al., 2012).

By maintaining this dual focus, Joe’s strengths, as well as challenges, have been considered to design an approach to meet the academic, emotional, and pragmatic needs of this 15-year-old learner, whose happiness in life may well depend on embracing his autistic pride (Corden et al., 2021).

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