Autistic students are able to excel in education when we can take control of the ways that we learn, and develop our own systems for learning. But public schools were not built for students to control their environment, learning material, instruction style, curriculum, what instruction time will be used for, and the amount of time that can be devoted to a subject. To support autistic learners, education must be flexible, tested in flexible ways, guided by student self-advocacy, delivered in accessible ways, and supported by staff.
Autistic education is hindered by crowded classrooms, disruptions, noise, and the social nature of group learning. These are all unfortunate realities of public school in its current form. Autistic students can be pulled from crowded classrooms and placed in segregated special education to accomodate the needs of autistic students by limiting stimulation, but special education also has drawbacks. When students are segregated from their peers, they are no longer seen as part of the class. They become the “other”, ostracized by their peers. It also “outs” the person’s autism, and opens them up to bullying targeting disabled people. They can receive messages from other students that they are of less value than abled, neurotypical students.
Special education also tends to carry values of Behavioural Analysis, and exercises targeting a student’s behaviour are a common part of special education. While a student in special education is being bullied by their peers for needing different programming to meet learning needs, they are also being stigmatized by staff working to change the person’s individual behaviours to appear more typical. Imagine how distressing this is for an autistic person; for their fellow students to tell them how annoying their autistic behaviours are, and then have staff members side with the bullies and work to change the autistic behaviours instead of disciplining the bullies. This sets a precedent for a world where people with typical neurotypes will continue to disparage people with divergent minds without social consequence, and the autistic person for a life of believing they need to act typical in order to be accepted.
There is little thought given to making a typical classroom more accessible for autistic learners, instead of forcing an autistic learner to conform to the needs of the school. As school systems face continuous austerity measures, classroom sizes get larger and more compact, with fewer teachers and assistants to help guide students. Each student has their individual needs folded into the needs of the school, rather than as it should be, the other way around. The people least affected by these austerity measures will be the learners with the most typical neurotypes, able to follow instruction and pass testing most closely to the way that the school system prescribes. Those people who cannot learn in these rigid ways, people with divergent minds, will be left behind. They will underachieve. They will drop out. Not for their own fault or lack of trying, but for the failure of the learning systems that students are compelled to conform to.
Inequality of education is inequality of opportunity. A student who is placed as a lower priority by school systems is set up for a life of believing themselves to be a lower priority person.
In order for education and opportunity to be equitable for autistic people as it is for people with typical neurotypes, we require that school systems work to make classrooms more accessible by limiting stimulation, giving autistic students more time to complete work, allowing autistic learners to freely stim in class to self-regulate, and deliver learning in multiple methods. If a student excels in special education more than they do in an accessible classroom, then the student must have their learning day integrated between classroom education and special education, so that the student can excel in academics while still socially integrating themselves with their peer groups. We require more funding for teachers and teacher assistants, both for raises (because they deserve them) and for hiring extra staff to ensure that neurodivergent people receive the one-on-one guidance we need to excel in school and take advantage of all of life’s opportunities.