Post by:

Deiera Bennett

Created on:

April 8, 2024

4 ways school districts can promote autism acceptance year-round

Autism acceptance in schools is about accepting autistic students for who they are and not basing that acceptance on their proximity to neurotypicality. At Social Cipher, we choose to celebrate autism acceptance instead of autism awareness. Our logic is that people are already aware of autism's existence, but the world still has a long way to go when it comes to accepting autistic people rather than trying to change them. As a school or district leader, it's important to promote autism acceptance year-round. Our in-house Neurodiversity and SEL Consultant, Dr. Lucas Harrington, shared four actions district administrators can take to promote autism acceptance within their schools.

1) Involve autistic people in decision-making

Autism acceptance starts with accepting that autistic people are the experts on their autism. When creating an inclusive learning environment, it is important to include autistic people in the decision-making process. While books and articles are valuable starting points for learning about common strengths and challenges of autistic people, a neurotypical person cannot fully understand what it is like to be autistic and therefore cannot anticipate the different accommodations autistic students can benefit from.

2) Implement inclusive policies and procedures

A major area where autistic students do not experience acceptance is when it comes to behavior. School discipline policies and procedures are usually written based on neurotypical student behaviors. Autistic students are often penalized for displaying behaviors outside of these neurotypical norms. 

The Social Cipher team includes former and current educators, and we frequently speak with educators throughout the country. It is widely known that educators, especially general education educators who teach inclusion classes, are not always equipped with the knowledge they need to properly address behavior challenges. This can lead to excessive suspensions and absenteeism due to school aversion. Policies and procedures, along with training to explain the reasoning behind them, can prevent autistic students from being penalized for distracting behaviors that stem from overwhelm and overstimulation. Policies and procedures surrounding representation in the curriculum, diverse instructional methods, and accommodations can also ensure the learning environment is safe and welcoming for all.

3) Address the double empathy problem

The double empathy problem is the idea that it is difficult for people to communicate and understand each other when they have different experiences and backgrounds. In interactions between autistic people and neurotypical people, the burden is often placed on the autistic person to learn how to communicate and understand neurotypical people. Addressing the double empathy problem requires both parties to put in equal effort to communicate and understand each other, which makes it clear that neither person’s perspective is better or worse. 

In a school setting, fostering empathy can begin with explaining the reasoning behind accommodations so that educators can have a better understanding of their students’ challenges. This can help educators to view accommodations as essential support instead of viewing them as extra work. Other ways to address the double empathy problem include training and workshops to educate staff members about neurodiversity, social and emotional learning (SEL) lessons focused on perspective-taking, and Collaborative and Proactive Solutions that seek to find solutions that work for everyone.

4) Prioritize representation

Not only is it important for autistic students to see themselves represented positively in their learning materials, but it is also important for neurotypical students and staff to see these positive representations as well. Our curriculum and social-emotional learning game Ava center around an autistic protagonist who faces common challenges and overcomes them using the SEL skills she learns within the game. In addition to purchasing curriculum that includes autistic characters and perspectives, district leaders can show a commitment to representation by:

  • Hiring autistic individuals
  • Inviting autistic guest speakers to visit schools
  • Implementing a variety of communication methods, including assistive technology
  • Valuing the input and viewpoints of autistic individuals in the decision-making process
  • Encouraging school administrators to add extracurriculars that cater to special interests

Autistic representation reiterates the point that differences should be embraced and celebrated.

When school and district leaders view autism as a disability through the social model of disability rather than a deficit through the medical model, it will be easier to identify areas where autism acceptance can be promoted. By including autistic people in decision-making and shifting away from assimilation-focused strategies, schools and districts can create a community where autistic students feel safe, supported, and empowered to be themselves.


"The Double Empathy Problem," Social Cipher.

"Collaborative and Proactive Solution," Greene, Ross.

Interview w/ Lucas Harrington, Psy.D.

Our online curriculum and SEL game Ava was created by a neurodivergent team specifically for neurodivergent youth ages 10-15. Learn more about how Ava can help your students strengthen valuable social and emotional skills.

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