Many people believe in inclusive education for autistics. However, I believe that we cannot create mutual acceptance and empathy by simply mixing autistics and non-autistics during school time. At best, this tends to create superficial friendships with little lasting value to autistics. At worse, the added sensory and social demands make school life difficult for autistics. Mainstream peers who are often called upon to take the initiative in these interactions may also feel that autistics are inferior to them as they always need help and accommodation.
What’s more, we also do not confine our social bonding to only people with the same age group or background in the real world. Truly inclusive education will not segregate students by chronological age or academic performance.
Perhaps most people believe that autistics are lonely, needy of friends and should be given a chance to experience a “normal” social environment. However, I believe that autistics actually need:
- Physical Space: A private space with minimal sensory noise where they can feel safe
- Emotional Space: A deep relationship built on their special interests and opinions
- Social Space: The ability to make useful contribution to society on their own terms, accomplishing what other people could not do
- Exploration Space: The ability to experience their choices without judgment and harm (when they come of age to develop self-will)
I also believe that autistics should be presented as skilled, useful people rather than as socially inept, clumsy people in need of help whenever possible. Translating all these into practical terms, we can:
- Help connect autistics to other people of the same interests and opinions
- Help autistics find, refine and package their talents so that they can contribute to their social groups (e.g. be the event photographer)
- Coach mature autistics in making decisions and explain the possible consequences to them
- Build miniature “caves” for autistics to “hide” when they feel overwhelmed
I suggest that the popularity of inclusive education in autism is part of the misunderstandings that mainstream educators and parents have about the difficulties faced by (high functioning) autistics. Consider these generalized concepts:
|Task-based Interactions: Share knowledge, tasks and strategies (e.g. playing chess and discussing chess strategies)||Experience-based Interactions: Share personal emotions and experiences (e.g. the social experience of going to church on Sunday morning).|
|Task Bonding: Participate in, discuss or study special interest together||Activity Bonding: Shop, watch soccer or have lunch together|
|Deep Relationships: Develop a close, highly trusting relationship with 1-2 close friends. May become obsessed with and demand to be with them all the time.||Multi-Hierarchy Relationship Web: Develop a complex social network with 1-3 close friends, 5-7 normal friends and many superficial friends.|
|Utility Benefit: Maintain relationships that are useful to advance their own needs or special interests||Likable Benefit: Maintain relationships with useful as well as “likeable” people, with more emphasis on the latter|
I know that it is hard for people to understand that autistics have a very different consciousness, and hence, different needs. For instance, I doubt that the idea of building “caves” in school will be popular with mainstream opinion because they may perceive this as encouraging autistics to become even more autistic and cut off from social relationships.
However, I do not consider the issue as whether we are making autistics more socially able or not, but as how we can best take advantage of the autistics’ needs and consciousness to develop them so that they can grow up living meaningful and useful lives.
When I share with parents and teachers, I usually shared about my superficial needs as they all seem to be eager to hear my actual experiences. However, I wished to go deeper to explore the true need behind the needs.
|Superficial Needs||Core Needs|
|Easy recognition of faces & names: A photo album with the names of all teachers and classmates.||Less social interaction: I would like a class with only 5-7 people as too many people overload me.|
|Protection from bullying: An explanation of the different types of bullying; implementing a strategy of being useful to a few classmates to gain their protection; changing schools to break bullies’ “career advancement”.||Private Space: Uninterrupted time and private space to do what I like without external interference.|
|No Project Teams: I can perform all the functions that usually require a team by myself. Working with people only complicates my project work and drags down my grades.||Ownership: I wish to own my achievements instead of having to accomodate to other people’s interference or being associated with the shoddy work of other people.|
|Developing my talents: The freedom to choose what I wish to study and how I wish to study when I come of age to decide.||Putting talents to use: Opportunities to represent the school in competitions and important events.|
|Clarity of instructions: I would like teachers to provide a list of everything I need to do or note in clear writing instead of intermittent verbal instructions.||Strategic Plans: I would like an explanation of why I should study a subject or do a project (when I came of age to understand).|
|Close Friends: Someone who accepts me and shares enough common interests to talk with.||Adventure Trio: I would like to explore and experiment with new things with one or two close friends.|
I believe that the core needs are the real problems that our schools should address. In fact, I believe that most educational systems worldwide need a revolution to address even deeper issues that affect both autistics and non-autistics. If I receive the opportunity to design a school, you can bet that it would look nothing like the ones I have seen or attended.