In our settings, we explore many differences with the children we support: we talk about the changing seasons, we explore different cultures and ethnicities, we celebrate festivals and we talk about growing up and growing old.
Difference is a part of life; a very wonderful part.
This is my third article in a series of four talking about difference through the lenses of disability, neurodivergence and social and emotional wellbeing. Difference is always immediately relevant to children, because all children are different. When we learn to recognise and understand difference in others, we are better equipped to recognise and understand our own differences. Teach children to embrace difference, and you teach them to embrace themselves.
My first two articles addressed differences that are visually apparent: Down’s syndrome and profound and multiple learning disabilities. Hopefully you have gotten into the habit of having these chats about difference with the children in your setting. Begin this chat, about autism in the same way as you have begun the others: by showing the children a photograph, or a collection of photographs of children who are autistic.
Ask the children what differences they can see. They will name visible differences such as what people are wearing and their hair and skin colour. Once you have exhausted the differences they can see tell them that there is another difference that they can see, the children are all autistic.
As with the other conversations, as we talk about this difference, we are going to be upfront and factual and model to the children how we expect them to approach and respond to difference. Do not say “children with autism”, say “autistic children.” With many conditions, person first language, i.e. “child with” is preferred as it denotes that the condition is an aspect of that person, not definitive of them. The autistic community demand identity first language. They do not view autism as a deficit, they view it as a difference. Of course autism is not definitive of the person, but it is wholly them. Think of descriptions you would use about yourself, you might say “I am male” you do not say “I am a person with maleness” and you do not expect me to think I know everything about you as a person from your statement of maleness. You are wholly male and wholly yourself. Autistic people are wholly autistic and wholly themselves.1
"Explain that often, autistic brains take in extra information about what a place looks, sounds, smells, tastes and feels like."
Explain that people who are autistic have brains that work differently to the brains of people who are not autistic. Autistic brains are good at taking in lots of information, sometimes this is useful – and a person can learn a lot about a topic, and sometimes it is not so useful – and all the information is too much. Get the children to think about the brains inside their heads. Ask them what their brain says about how bright it is in the room, or how noisy it is? Help them to notice that their answers are different. Explain that often autistic brains take in extra information about what a place looks, sounds, smells, tastes and feels like. Ask them how they would feel if you made it much, much brighter and much, much louder and much, much smellier? Link their reactions to the behaviour response they might see from an autistic child overwhelmed by their sensory environment.
Say, “everybody stand up” and allow time for the children to follow your instruction. “Everybody sit down,” “Everybody quiet... now put your hand up if you are called Everybody.” See if you can get a chuckle from them. “How did you know who I meant?” Explain to the children that an autistic brain will not necessarily know that they are ‘Everybody.’ You would need to say that child’s name if you wanted them to stand up. If you have an autistic child in your setting already it is likely that this is something you currently do – this is your opportunity to explain why you always say “Alice… everybody: stand up.”
Tell the children that it is useful to have different brains to do different things. Autistic people have very busy brains, which can sometimes make them seem distracted but can also make them very good at focusing. It is interesting to get to know people who are different to ourselves. We can try to help them with the things about the environment they find difficult, and they can try to help us with the things about the environment that we find difficult; (many a leap in engineering and technology was made by an autistic mind).
Try sharing a story with an autistic main character as a way to end this conversation: The “CloudSpotter”, by Tom McLaughlin. “Ernest and I”, by me, and the children’s television series “Pablo” are all examples of stories with autistic protagonists.
Of course if a person prefers to be referred to in a different way, we should always respect their preferences.
It may also be pertinent to know that the autistic community reject the symbol of the puzzle piece in relation to autism, instead preferring a rainbow-coloured or gold coloured infinity symbol. The colour blue in relation to autism tends to be used by organisations looking to eliminate neurodivergence and is also universally rejected by the autistic community.
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”, “Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”, “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”.
Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.