An advocate's tips to engage better with those on the spectrum

A man, woman and child smile at the camera. Behind them is a pushbike with a sign on it that reads child on board
Image: Travis Saunders, Fiona Churchman and their son Patch

Education consultant, autism advocate and parent Travis Saunders shares five tips to help readers re-think teaching, parenting and connecting with autistic people.

Travis Saunders has been an autism advocate since his son Patch was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at 18 months old.

He's produced The Parenting Spectrum, an ABC podcast about autism and family life, with his partner Fiona; run 12 marathons to raise autism awareness; and cycled more than 5,000km across America to show his son there's nothing he can't do.

He's previously worked as a teacher, and is currently a member of the Australian Autism Research Council and a professional speaker touring the country talking about neurodiversity and how to be a positive guide.

Below, he offers five tips on how to better engage with autistic children and young people at school that are helpful whether you're a school leader, a teacher or a parent.

Always presume competence

"Presuming competence means believing in somebody's capabilities and understanding and focusing on their strengths and interests and fostering those," Mr Saunders said.

It means speaking to all children and young people in a way that acknowledges their understanding, and having high expectations of what they can achieve.

"Because our son is non-verbal, some people wrongly assume he isn't capable and that he doesn't understand what they're saying," Mr Saunders said. "But when we believe that a child is competent, we provide them with a greater self-belief which leads to greater opportunities for success."

Choice and control

It's important to find a way to give autistic children choice and control rather than assuming what they want or need. This may mean using non-written or non-verbal communication, and it's critical to work with each child to find the communication style that best works for them.

"Focus on what can help a child gain as much independence as possible rather than offering automatic assistance or completing a task for them," Mr Saunders said.

"Greater choice goes a long way in terms of being able to help children feel good about themselves. It's what's going to help them achieve their goals, whether it's writing an essay or endeavouring to become Prime Minister."

Rethink misconceptions about autism

"Approach every child as unique and not as a diagnosis," Mr Saunders advises. "Every person on the autism spectrum is an individual."

Keep in mind too that recent research has changed best practice around engaging with autistic children. Mr Saunders gives the example of stimming, which decades ago was discouraged but through listening to autistic people advocates have learnt it is a necessary way to self-soothe and regulate their emotions. Similarly, parents and teachers often require children to make eye contact to signal they are listening, which which isn?t necessary because it can be very stressful and lead to a sensory overload.

"Stimming can be anything: rocking, flapping or jumping on the spot, repeating words, many different behaviours," Mr Saunders said, "and it can actually help students focus and feel calm."

Seek out autistic voices and commentary

It's also crucial to be listening to the voices of autistic people when they write, speak or present research about their lives and the way they understand the world.

Those without lived experience of autism can learn a lot by listening to adults with disability, and parents of autistic children will likely gain new understanding of how they experience the world. For Travis, meeting mentors and mentees from the ICAN network was a catalyst for re-shaping his views on the kind of life his son could expect to have.

"As a parent, the number one thing to remember is that your child is awesome, and if you can develop that mindset as soon as possible and change your language that's going to change their life," he said.

If you're unsure, ask!

Every child and young person is different, so never assume you know it all. If you're unsure of a student's needs, find a way to ask them or check in with a family member.

Mr Saunders says executive functioning can be particularly tricky for some autistic people so don't be afraid to seek individual advice on the accommodations a student might need. It could be that they need help prioritising tasks or knowing what time class starts and where to go, or it could be that they can manage very well in these areas but need assistance with something else entirely.

"Especially as a teacher, check in with the child. Work with the team that they have behind them and with their parents - helping a child feel comfortable, happy, connected, accommodated, included and safe means they're more likely to learn," he said.

Throughout this article we've used the term autistic people at Travis's request as this is the preferred terminology for some adults on the spectrum. Others prefer the term people with autism. The Department of Education uses the term people with disability.

If you'd like to follow Travis Saunders, find him on Facebook, and if you'd like to share your tips on engaging with people with disability, email our team at disability.strategy@det.nsw.edu.au.

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