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Six Ways to Foster an Inclusive and Autism-Affirming Approach to SEL

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The gold infinity symbol represents Autism Acceptance. It was chosen by the autistic community because the chemical symbol for gold is Au, which corresponds to the first two letters of 'autism' and 'autistic.'

Before joining the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning (IFSEL), I served as a clinical psychology intern at a center for neurodivergent children, many of whom were autistic. Autistic children communicate, socialize, process sensory input, and regulate their emotions in different ways than non-autistic children. In school, many struggle to make friends and face bullying for their differences, while some spend many of their school days trying to mask and suppress their autistic characteristics. Lack of friends, bullying, and masking have all proven to harm autistic students' mental health and sense of belonging in school. 

Throughout my internship at IFSEL, I have often reflected on how SEL has the potential to change some of these outcomes when it is inclusive and autism-affirming. Inclusive and autism-affirming SEL can reduce bullying and the need for masking by fostering understanding and acceptance of autistic students' social and emotional differences. Inclusive and autism-affirming SEL can also support autistic students' social and emotional needs by providing accommodations and aiding in the development and maintenance of skills that work with, rather than against, their brains. Inclusive and autism-affirming SEL has the potential to drastically improve autistic students' mental health and sense of belonging in school.

If you are an educator seeking to enhance inclusivity and adopt an autism-affirming approach to SEL, here are six strategies to get started. 

1. Promote Autism Awareness and Acceptance

Educators practicing SEL should be knowledgeable about autism, given its connections to social and emotional experiences and expression. Autistic students' ways of communicating, socializing, and regulating emotions should not be understood as deficits in need of correction but as differences deserving of understanding, acceptance, and support. Additionally, it is important to recognize how autistic characteristics, like direct communication, can be and are strengths. Including this kind of autism representation in the curriculum can reduce stigma and promote understanding, acceptance, and respect of autistic students among peers.

2. Reject Rigid Social Standards

Inclusive and autism-affirming SEL rejects rigid social standards that have historically harmed the autistic community, such as the expectation of maintaining eye contact when someone is speaking to demonstrate that you are listening. Eye contact can be physically painful for autistic people and almost always make it harder for them to actually listen, even if it appears that they are. Emphasize that listening doesn’t look a certain way, and encourage students to explore and listen in ways that work for them. Additionally, encourage students to be curious rather than judgemental when peers communicate and socialize in ways different than themselves.

3. Normalize Self-Regulation Tools:

Self-regulation tools commonly used by autistic people, like stimming (tapping, flapping hands, rocking, etc), play an essential role in emotion regulation and should not be interfered with unless it poses a safety risk. In addition to stimming, autistic students often utilize other self regulation tools, like headphones or weighted blankets, to regulate sensory input. Ensure access to these tools in the classroom and educate students about how they can be beneficial for autistic and non-autistic students alike.

4. Preview Activities

Autistic students often benefit from previewing an activity before participating. Previewing includes providing direct instructions of the activity and an explanation of why they are doing the activity. It also includes providing time for questions and answers. Previewing alleviates anxiety and reduces uncertainty about expectations, helping autistic students transition to and reap the most benefit from activities.

5. Offer Various Ways to Participate:

Some autistic students are non-speaking or semi-speaking and utilize augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems in order to communicate. Other autistic students can speak but are more comfortable with communicating in other ways. Educators should therefore offer various ways to participate, such as speaking, writing, drawing, pointing to images, or using text to speech devices. Method of communication may change based on the demands of the activity. Whatever the method of communication is, it should be acknowledged and respected as valuable in the classroom.

6. Prioritize Advocacy Skills:

Developing self-advocacy skills is crucial for autistic students as it not only enables them to express their wants, needs, and preferences, but also empowers them to assert themselves and seek support when they are uncomfortable or unsafe, which is especially important given their heightened vulnerability to bullying, abuse, and neglect. Furthermore, educating non-autistic students on how to advocate for their autistic peers and intervene when necessary is equally important. Students need clear, direct instruction on how to advocate for themselves and others.

By integrating these strategies, we take steps to ensure that SEL is inclusive, affirming, and supportive of autistic students' social and emotional needs and differences. Such an approach has the potential to reduce bullying and masking, while drastically improving autistic students' mental health and sense of belonging within the school community. 

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Six Ways to Foster an Inclusive and Autism-Affirming Approach to SEL

Preschool

K-3

3 - 6

Middle School

High School

Adult

Inclusive and autism-affirming SEL can reduce bullying and the need for masking by fostering understanding and acceptance of autistic students' social and emotional differences.

Learn More

Six Ways to Foster an Inclusive and Autism-Affirming Approach to SEL

Preschool

K-3

3 - 6

Middle School

High School

Adult

Inclusive and autism-affirming SEL can reduce bullying and the need for masking by fostering understanding and acceptance of autistic students' social and emotional differences.

Learn More

Six Ways to Foster an Inclusive and Autism-Affirming Approach to SEL

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Inclusive and autism-affirming SEL can reduce bullying and the need for masking by fostering understanding and acceptance of autistic students' social and emotional differences.

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