Supporting autistic learners in class — Two educators’ views
Two autistic educators share their best practices for meeting the needs of autistic learners in Outschool classes.

Malikai Bass and Christian Gonzalez, two autistic educators on Outschool, applaud the shift from “awareness” to “acceptance” as people mark Autism Acceptance Month in April.

They both said that “awareness” — referring to the former name Autism Awareness Month — doesn’t ask people to do anything.

And that’s the important callout in the new name.

People often focus on helping autistic people adapt to the ways of neurotypical people, but “acceptance” represents a shift in perspective: Autistic people are just fine as they are.

Both educators made that point:

“Autism is not a defect in the human brain but rather a different operating system.” (Malikai)

– Malikai Bass

“Autism is not something you can cure.”

– Christian Gonzalez

Malikai and Christian shared how they have succeeded in building welcoming communities for autistic learners on Outschool.

Creating community for autistic learners

Malikai teaches more than 20 chess classes each week as well as classes focusing on math, science, and other academic subjects. He highlighted one class he’s teaching during Autism Acceptance Month, where learners are reading a novel and poetry by autistic authors.

The academic classes are part of an informal “microschool” originally started to support one learner who Malikai had been homeschooling. This learner eventually wanted more peer interaction, so Malikai began teaching classes on Outschool in July of 2021 so that both that learner and others could join. Now, a steady group of students, most of whom are autistic, take a regular set of his academic classes. Other learners, both autistic and neurotypical, join classes that work for them.

Malikai got involved in alternative forms of education after completing all the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in elementary education except for the student teaching portion. It was then that he realized that many of the same issues that he disliked about traditional school when he was younger were still present.

He still found traditional classrooms “really overwhelming, and I felt constantly dysregulated.” In addition, “classroom management, as I was taught it, was really behavior-based and not neurodiversity affirming,” he said. “It was not the way I wanted to relate to kids.” Malikai switched his major and refocused on museums, where he worked on designing curriculum and summer camps to be more neurodiversity-affirming.

Christian offers 15 to 20 social club classes a week focused mainly on sports, gaming, and anime. The classes and social groups that he has led since January of 2021 have created a community that he wishes he had had growing up.

The classes give learners a chance to talk about and engage with topics they are passionate about and to interact with others who are autistic too. “I am just glad I am able to give back to the community,” Christian said.

What autistic learners need

Christian and Malikai highlighted the needs of learners who are autistic, based on their own experiences and their time spent teaching autistic learners.

Provide multiple ways for learners to communicate

“There are situations in which I am non-speaking,” said Malikai, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree. “Speaking takes up a lot of bandwidth for me, especially If I wasn’t able to prepare, or if I’m talking to someone new or in a new environment.”

He has at times used speech-generating devices when taking college classes. Since speech can be challenging for many autistic learners, he makes sure that he offers supports – augmentative and alternative (AAC) devices, text-to-speech programs, communication cards, emojis, chat, whiteboards, and Nearpod activities – to all learners in his classes. He also models alternative forms of communication in his classes. Malikai tries to give learners opportunities to practice non-verbal forms of communication, since they may not get that elsewhere.

Try to include topics that your autistic learners are passionate about

Christian said that when he tutors learners, he tries to build in a few minutes to talk about a favorite character or something the learner is enthusiastic about.

Sometimes that person’s mind is so focused on whatever they are passionate about that they just need an outlet for that, he said. Then they will be able to be fully invested in the topic they are there to receive help with.

Support learners in self-advocacy

Young people may not have anyone in their family or even in their community who is neurodivergent. Malikai said he frequently talks to learners about managing their personal energy budget, or prioritizing important tasks then allowing themselves time to refresh.

“I try to model a lot of strategies, especially when I notice kids getting frustrated and getting dysregulated,” he said. Learners in his classes also know that they can always take a break if they need to.

Give learners time to react to questions

Some students need time to process their thoughts when an educator or someone else asks them a question, Christian said. If he poses a question to the class, he said, “I will always answer the question first myself to give all the students in my class the time to process and think of what answer they want to share.”

Coach social skills in real-world situations

Malikai likes to bring in practice with social skills during other classes like his chess sessions. In those classes, real-life issues arise that require problem-solving, collaborating, and handling disagreements, he said, so we work on those skills then.

Call on learners in social classes

Christian invites learners to talk in his social groups to make sure that everyone gets to share. “I will call a kid out specifically so that everyone gets a chance to talk,” he said.

He pointed out that some learners don’t know how to “cut in” to give their point of view. Christian said that he will provide a cue like “Hey, what do you think about that?” so that the learner has an opening to jump in.

Educators may have autistic learners in their classes, whether they are identified as autistic or not. As an educator, you can invite parents and learners to let you know if a learner needs accommodations or additional support for any reason.

Celebrating autism

In the end, the most important part of supporting an autistic person is to love autism —that’s Malikai’s view. If you are holding on to negative societal ideas about autism, he said, that’s always going to be a part of your relationship with that person.

“I recommend trying to find ways to celebrate autism,” he said. “That’s going to put you on a path to find a lot of strategies that are neurodiversity affirming and positive.”

Think about the autistic people who are authors, musicians, artists, and innovators. Understand that autistic people experience life in a unique way.

Malikai noted that autistic people tend to feel emotions very strongly. Although experiencing negative emotions strongly can be challenging, he said, autistic people can feel joy intensely too.

“There are few people who I have ever seen happier on the planet than an autistic child who is with that thing that is their interest,” Malikai said, “whether that’s trains, or sports, or books, or a specific place.”

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