Research-Based Approaches to Autistic Ways of Learning

Hello! I’m Karla McLaren, and in 2014 I completed my master’s degree in education and curriculum design (with a concentration in linguistic anthropology) at Sonoma State University in California. I focused on research-based suggestions for working with autistic children and adults in ways that support their neurology and their unique learning styles. *See this note about the identity-first language I use here.

In my research, I found some specific suggestions and asked for input from autistic people (and from parents, teachers, or aides who have worked with autistic children in these ways) about these suggestions.

As you may know, most autism research literature focuses on autism as a medical problem, as a deficit, as a lack, and as a loss; however, a small but growing group of researchers is questioning this deficit focus and instead asking about autism in more humane and creative ways.

In fields such as anthropology and sociology, there is a long tradition of studying the ways that we are taught to appear normal, and the endless ways that we exclude people who cannot or will not appear normal. Disabled people, people of color, and sexual/gender minorities live with this exclusion every day, and there is a rich tradition of research that has helped us become deeply aware of the ways that enforcing simplistic ideas of normalcy can injure people.

I’ve been studying autism in this tradition and have discovered specific, research-based approaches to autistic ways of learning and autistic forms of socialization that could humanize and improve education for autistic children and adults. My research is focused on gathering and presenting these autism-positive approaches to the larger community, but first I want to get direct input from the people who understand autism best: Autistic people themselves.

Your input is invaluable, and I thank you in advance for your time and attention.

Please leave comments and questions here. This is a safe space for autistic people and their families, and comments will respect the dignity, autonomy, and self-determination of autistic people.

Thank you!


A great deal of autism education and intervention involves “normalizing” autistic children so that their behavior more closely matches the behavior and developmental timelines of neurologically typical (neurotypical) children. This might be supportive if autism were a series of intentional behaviors that were under the conscious control of autistic people, but in practice, these normalizing approaches tend to be suppressive to autistic ways of being and learning.

In 2011, Canadian neuroscientist Dr. Laurent Mottron noted that

“Most educational programmes for autistic toddlers aim to suppress autistic behaviors, and to make children follow a typical developmental trajectory. None is grounded in the unique way autistics learn.”

Linguistic anthropologists Elinor Ochs, Olga Solomon, and their colleagues performed a decade of research into the ways that autistic children learn. Over the course of several years and several studies, Ochs and her colleagues focused on the social and linguistic lives of autistic children, and discovered what Ochs and Solomon call “an algorithm for autistic sociality.”

This algorithm, based upon extensive observations of the everyday lives of autistic children, is grounded in the linguistic anthropological concept that “each speech community is distinguished by a communicative repertoire … [and] repertoires of social coordination” (Ochs & Solomon, 2010, p. 72). These repertoires are a collection of shared behaviors that people rely upon, often without realizing it, to create “normal” life with each other.

In their research, Ochs, Solomon, and their colleagues focused upon the conditions that facilitate social coordination for autistic children, and those that are poorly designed for the needs of the children.

For instance, enforcing eye contact, focusing on speech over other forms of communication, and using high intensity baby talk (see below) – each of which may work for (hearing) neurotypical children, may not work at all for autistic children.

The work of Eleanor Ochs, her colleagues, and other researchers suggests that the ways we interact with typically developing children may be very poorly designed for interacting with autistic children. They make these specific suggestions, which may be more comfortable and workable for autistic children and other children with sensory sensitivities.

Here are the suggestions for parents, teachers, and clinicians, which I’ll explain below:

  • Use the family’s own language in the home.
  • Welcome the child’s focus on objective knowledge, if that is the child’s area of interest.
  • Do not waste time enforcing eye contact or face-to-face alignment if the child doesn’t enjoy it; eye contact is not necessary, and may actually impede learning and thinking.
  • Learn how to focus on things that are interesting to the child, and join in on his or her interests. Do not try to enforce your interests on the child.
  • Learn how to teach, interact, and share teaching materials and items of interest in a side-by-side or oblique orientation (see below).
  • Welcome alternate forms of communication rather than focusing on speech. Use visual communication, writing, pointing, music, computers, tablets, etc.
  • Speak at a normal speed and manage your pitch, your volume, and your emotional intensity. Make your communication clear and calming instead of stretched out and baby-ish.

This algorithm suggests that enforcing neurotypical behaviors and neurotypical developmental timelines onto autistic bodies may actually interfere with autistic children’s development, their acquisition of language, their social skills, and their sense of belonging in the world.

Each aspect of this algorithm is described on this page. Some of these descriptions are lengthy because I want you to have the background you need to understand each of these aspects, especially if you want to try them, or if you’re using them already and need some research-based support. As you know, each person is an individual, and these suggestions may not work for everyone. However, they’re an interesting place to start.

An Algorithm for Autistic Sociality


Domain Parameters

Conditions Promoting Social Coordination

Language Child’s first language with family members
Topic Objective knowledge
Bodily Alignment Non-face-to-face interaction
Mediation Artifacts and/or animals to mediate interaction
Communicative Medium Writing, pointing, music, computers
Emotional Intensity Restrained emotion displays, fewer pitch changes
Tempo Moderate to rapid speech

(From Ochs & Solomon, 2010, pg. 87)

The Language Domain

Many clinicians promote English-only instruction for autistic children, and they recommend that families interact with their language-delayed autistic children solely in English, regardless of the families’ home languages or their skill with English. It was once thought that bilingualism was too hard for children with language difficulties or delays, but studies in linguistics have not supported this idea (see Pearson 1993, and Pettito 2001, below).

Ochs and Solomon observed many bilingual autistic children whose families ignored the instruction to use only English in the home, and found that bilingualism was quite achievable for these children, and preferable to artificially restricting their families’ own language. They write: “Moreover, given that the family is the primary institution for nurturing social and emotional bonds, the importance of the mother tongue and default language of the home for promoting autistic sociality cannot be overstated.”

The Topic Domain

Ochs and Solomon observed numerous instances in which autistic children were drawn to learning about and discussing objective knowledge concerning things such as sequences, numbers, sets of objects, schedules, and mathematical puzzles (etc.). For these children, conversations that focused on emotions or subjective states (or conversations that referred to subjective or emotional states) were often confusing, and tended to reduce their enjoyment and engagement in social interactions.

The DSM-V (2013) describes this focus on objective topics as a central aspect of autistic social impairment:

“Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions” (DSM-V, section A1).

However, Ochs and her colleagues challenge this failure frame, and suggest that focusing on topics that interest children results in longer dialogues, more socialization, and greater social ease. Focusing on topics that aren’t interesting to autistic children (or any children!), or directing them into conversational situations that confuse them unnecessarily interferes with their social development.

Many parents of autistic children disregard the advice of educators and clinicians who tell them to limit their children’s special interest topics (which are negatively framed as “perseverations”), or to allow these interests only as rewards, and only for restricted spans of time – since these special interests are framed as deficits in the DSM-V:

“Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest)” (DSM-V, section B3).

However, an increasing number of parents are creating child-focused areas of social coordination by using their children’s special interests (in trains, numbers, cars, movie dialogue, chemistry, elevators, bus schedules, etc.) to engage with them, learn about their interests, and teach them subjects such as math, writing, art, computer skills, conversational skills, and so forth.

Engaging with topics that are of intense interest to autistic children (or any children) provides a foundation for parents, teachers, and clinicians to engage with their innate conversational and social skills.

The Bodily Alignment Domain

The DSM-V lists reduced eye contact as a feature of autism:

“…abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures” (DSM-V, section A2).

Cover of John Elder Robison's book Look Me In the EyeHowever, Ochs and Solomon challenge the assumption that eye contact and face-to-face alignment are requirements for social engagement for autistic children. Face-to-face alignment is the rule in schools and clinics, but Ochs and Solomon note that many (but not all) autistic children tend to avoid face-to-face orientation and that enforcing it is time-consuming and inefficient, and can easily lead to sensory overload and avoidance on the part of the children.

Even so, there is an intense focus on enforcing eye contact in autistic children and adults; this enforcement occurs in clinical and school settings, certainly, but it is also a specific feature of social skills training, IBI (Intensive Behavioral Intervention) and ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) training, and numerous computer programs and apps such as Look in My Eyes and Eye Contact.

Many autistic children and adults report that eye contact is uncomfortable and over-stimulating for them, but these self-reports tend to be ignored in favor of enforcing neurotypical eye contact behaviors onto autistic bodies.

Questioning the role of face-to-face eye contact

Developmental researchers Nameera Akhtar and Morton Ann Gernsbacher (2008) question the role of eye contact and face-to-face orientation. They note that when typically developing infants “are over-aroused (manifested by heart rate accelerations), they actively avert their gaze from their caregivers,” which helps them lower their heart rates and calm down.

Akhtar and Gernsbacher suggest that gaze aversion (looking away) in autistic people could be a self-regulation behavior, and that while looking away, autistic children could be using sensory, vocal, and body language cues (instead of facial expressions) to access social information.

Akhtar and Gernsbacher point out that in everyday interactions, “changes in gaze direction are almost always accompanied by changes in body posture, head orientation, and voice direction,” and all of these bodily cues point to the same item or situation. Eyes and faces are important, but they’re certainly not the only way we provide social information to each other.

Anthropologists Frederick Erickson and Jeffrey Schultz (1997) add that changes in rhythms and body motions, changes in gaze direction, and changes in facial expression seem to combine to create a kind of fail-safe mechanism to help people understand each other. Elise Barbeau and her colleagues (2013) also found that autistic children tend to be able to take in visual information very quickly, with what they call “fast information capture,” and that the children can easily do this with peripheral (sideways) gazes.

This may mean, as Morton Ann Gernsbacher and her colleagues (2008) suggest, that the combination of fast visual capacity and a talent for accurate peripheral vision means that many autistic infants and children can pay attention without having to be in a face-to face alignment.

Simply put, many autistic children (and adults) don’t need to be in face-to-face or eye-to-eye contact to pick up important visual and social information. These people can accurately pick up important information when they’re beside someone; therefore, teaching from a side-by-side position (instead of enforcing face-to-face and eye-to-eye contact) could actually help autistic children learn more quickly and more comfortably.

Three British researchers approached this eye contact situation in a very clever way

The question of what actually constitutes neurotypical eye contact behaviors has been challenged by British researchers Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, Deborah Riby, and Lisa Whittle (2012), who propose that gaze aversion (looking away), and specifically gaze aversion from faces is a “cognitive load management strategy,” or a way to manage the amount of information your brain is taking in.

Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues report that “enforcing extended face contact in typically developing children can produce very significant “cognitive interference effects” that slow down children’s ability to process information. These researchers and others have found that training children (and adults) to look away from faces during thinking improves the children’s concentration and their performance on tasks.

Gaze aversion (looking away from faces) is a very important thinking strategy used by people of every neurology.
To test this idea in autistic children, Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues gave a series of verbal math tests to three seemingly very different groups of children: autistic children, neurotypical children, and children with Williams syndrome, which is a rare neuro-developmental condition in which children are uniquely hyper-social, hyper-friendly, and tend to enjoy intense and extended eye contact.

Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues proposed that, regardless of the difficulty of the math questions, the Williams children would have problems disengaging from eye contact, that the autistic children would have problems engaging in eye contact, and that children from both of these groups would not be able to manage their eye contact as well as neurotypical children did in different parts of the test (listening, thinking, and answering), because they assumed that the autistic and Williams children had poor control of their attention.

What they found, however, was that gaze aversion was similar across all three of the groups, and that autistic and Williams children were very able to manage their eye contact behaviors in different phases of the test.

Surprisingly, Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues found that the autistic children did not look away from faces more often than the neurotypical children did; however, they did look away more often during listening tasks than neurotypical children did, and they looked away less often during thinking tasks.

The total amount of eye contact was similar in the autistic, Williams, and neurotypical children, and the act of looking away from faces was used similarly, and more often, by all three groups when the math questions were more difficult (this tends to confirm the idea that gaze aversion is a cognitive load management strategy for all three groups).

However, the autistic children looked away from faces more often during the listening portion of the test (when the math questions were being given to them verbally), which is the time when neurotypical people expect (and demand) eye contact – while they actually made greater amounts of eye contact than the Williams or neurotypical children did during the thinking portion of the test (when they were figuring out the math in their head), which is where neurotypicals tend to expect reduced eye contact.

The autistic children’s aversion to eye contact was not higher overall; instead, it was backward to what neurotypical people expect. The autistic children tended to look away when listening, and to make eye contact when answering, but overall, they were making eye contact as often as neurotypical (and Williams) children did.

This result tends to challenge the idea that autistic children avoid eye contact due to hyper-arousal or social aversion: “If their GA [gaze aversion] was driven by hyper-arousal or aversion to social stimuli, we would expect elevated levels of GA across all phases of the interaction – not the pattern observed” (Doherty-Sneddon et al, 2012, p. 428).

In a second study from that same year, Riby, Doherty-Sneddon, and Whittle (2012) created a similar study for different groups of neurotypical, autistic, and Williams children in order to test a series of ideas about why autistic children look away during listening tasks more often than neurotypical or Williams children do.

In this study, Riby and her colleagues asked the children to maintain eye contact during all phases of the verbal math tests, and they found that enforcing eye contact reliably derailed the ability to listen, think, or do math calculations for children in all of the groups.

This is something that other researchers have found with (neurotypical) adults: When people are forced to look into someone else’s eyes, their ability to think and process information is severely obstructed. Riby and her colleagues suggest that “Averting gaze may be as important functionally for processing information as holding mutual gaze is.”

Faces themselves were also singled out for their unique ability to confuse neurotypical people and slow down their thinking:

“in typical development there were significant and consistent interference effects associated with looking at faces over and above any dual-task effects. This was the case even when compared to interference associated with looking at moving visuo-spatial patterns” (Riby et al, 2012, p. 289).

In this second study, the children in each group were given verbal math tests in two conditions. In one condition, the children were asked to maintain eye contact constantly, and in the other, the children weren’t given any instructions about eye contact (they were able to look away whenever they liked).

The researchers found that children from all three groups answered more accurately when they were allowed to look away at will, that accuracy was equally derailed in the enforced eye contact trials for all three groups, and that we “should expect that the requirement to look at a face will cause a detriment to cognition” in autistic, Williams, and neurotypical children.

This study again challenged the idea that autistic people look away from faces because they are socially avoiding people. Instead, Riby and her colleagues suggested that the autistic children either simply didn’t recognize the significance of facial cues during listening tasks, or that they “need to begin their computations earlier than typically developing individuals … and thus begin to avert their gaze earlier in the process.”

This idea ties in with information from autistic people and their families about sensory hypo- and hyper-sensitivities and sensory integration issues; it could be that, for autistic children, the act of listening or taking in information requires more cognitive energy and more gaze aversion than it does for neurotypical children, while the acts of thinking and answering require less cognitive energy, so that autistic children are more able to make eye contact during those times.

Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues from the first study point out that demanding eye contact from autistic children could be precisely the wrong idea:

“Asking for eye contact … is only likely to interfere with concentration, working out a problem, or retrieving information from memory…. [and] The implications for social skills training are huge” (Doherty-Sneddon et al, 2012, p. 429).

Enforced eye contact slows down everyone of every neurology; it makes thinking, concentrating, and remembering much harder, and it is very possible that it will actually hinder the development of autistic children who use gaze aversion as a cognitive management strategy, because it will make social interaction uncomfortable, reduce their ability to learn, and frustrate them for no good reason.

Elinor Ochs and Olga Solomon would agree, and they suggest instead that:

“…non-face-to-face alignments may optimize opportunities for social coordination … in ways that face-to-face interaction does not. As such, non-face-to-face interaction is an important condition in the algorithm for autistic sociality. Non-face-to-face interaction includes a broad range of possibilities, including, for instance, side-by-side and oblique orientation, as well as interaction that transpires out of sight at a distance, for example though writing” (Ochs and Solomon, 2010, p. 81).

Photo of a rectangular white table with different colored place settings. No one is sitting at the table.Side-by-side orientation is pretty easy to describe: You simply sit next to each other (for instance, on a couch) instead of facing each other.

Oblique orientation needs a graphic description: In this photo of a white rectangular table with different colored place settings, imagine that you are sitting in the chair in front of the green bowl (the chair on the left side of the photo). If I sit in the chair in front of the orange bowl (the chair at the front of the photo), I will be sitting in an oblique orientation to you. When we are sitting obliquely, we can see each other peripherally and share focus on something like a piece of paper or a tablet, but we aren’t face-to-face.

The Mediation Domain

Mediation refers to something that people focus on together; for instance, when we watch TV together, the TV is the mediator for us, and when we play jump rope, the rope is our mediator. Ochs and Solomon suggest using physical objects such as computers, tablets, books, or paper and pens in a school or clinical environment, as the focus for joint attention and social interaction.

Along with side-by-side or oblique orientation, this mediated focus allows autistic children to pay attention to interesting things with others while they focus peripherally (and perhaps with fast lateral glances) on faces, eyes, and other bodily social cues “without the overwhelming visual stimuli” and cognitive interference that faces contain.

In a study of the autistic self-advocacy movement, Nancy Bagatell (2010) found, quite by accident, that jointly focusing on a laptop screen with a previously withdrawn autistic man freed him up to share a long, emotionally complex, and meaningful story with her. She also found that, for many of the autistic advocates she studied, nearness to others, but not face-to-face or direct contact, was a preferred form of socialization.

Bagatell writes of her surprise in learning that one seemingly disengaged young woman at a neurodiversity-focused support group for autistic teens and adults reported that she had enjoyed the chance to socialize with others. The young woman said, “We don’t have to talk. We can just share energy to be social.”

Researcher Karen Sirota Gainer (2004) also notes that activities involving joint attention, where people collaborate on a shared focus of interest (such as a book, a screen, or a science experiment) can support autistic children’s development of language and social skills. Ochs and Solomon also report that using specially trained support animals as mediators created enjoyable interactions with other children, family members, and the dogs’ trainers for extended periods of time.

Morton Ann Gernsbacher and her colleagues (2008) studied the ways that autistic babies and children learn to pay attention to people or objects, and found that visual and motor dyspraxias (delays or difficulties with vision and movement) were a part of autistic children’s atypical eye contact and atypical shared attention tendencies.

These researchers suggest that rather than pulling autistic children’s attention away from things that interest and fascinate them, we should share their focus and rely upon those interesting objects as mediators of language development, social interaction, engagement, and fun.

The Communicative Medium Domain

Ochs and Solomon note that “Although speech is the primary medium of human sociality for the neurotypical population, it is not necessarily the optimal medium” for minimally verbal or nonspeaking autistic children, for whom most intensive clinical interventions focus on speech as an endpoint of communicative skill.

Instead, Ochs and Solomon suggest media that do not require speech, such as music, pointing to letter boards or tablets, or non-face-to-face communications such as writing and computers. In a study of an East Indian educator, Soma Mukhopadhyay, who has become well-known for her success in teaching nonspeaking children to communicate with letter boards, Ochs and Solomon observed nonspeaking children’s success in learning language.

In their decade of research, Ochs and Solomon observed numerous nonspeaking autistic children who communicated very successfully by pointing at letter boards or tablets, at levels that were never achieved when speech was the main goal.

Some writers and researchers (Blume, 1997 & 1998; Grinker, 2010; Bagatell, 2010) have focused on the computer as a particularly valuable medium that supports autistic sociality. The Internet has provided a supportive environment where autistic people have collaboratively created an international community and a cultural touchstone. As Ben, a young autistic man interviewed by researcher Nancy Bagatell (2010) says about computers: “It’s the autistic way of communicating.”

In a study of language style-matching as a predictor of group cohesiveness, researchers Amy Gonzalez, Jeffrey Hancock, and James Pennebaker (2010) write about mimicry as a fundamental social behavior that can predict kinship and empathy and facilitate language comprehension. Gonzalez and her colleagues found that language synchronization, mimicry, and social cohesion all occur in online social groups, and that “there is more to mimicry than synchronization based on physical rhythms” and proximity; it is very possible to empathize and communicate at a distance through letters or computers.

In my three years of participant-observation in the international online autism community, I have witnessed consistently strong synchronization, style matching, social cohesion, and a communal love of jokes and games based on mimicry, kinship, empathy, and group affiliation; the autistic community is an intensely social and empathetic online community.

There are also indications from the research that focusing on the often unconventional communication strategies of nonspeaking autistic children can be a doorway to engagement. In one study (Gernsbacher & Pripas-Kapit, 2012), a young autistic boy answered a math problem (in which the correct answer was six) by offering to draw a hexagram; his answer was correct, but it was rendered in a visual rather than linguistic manner.

In another study, (Emerson & Dearden, 2013), a nonspeaking autistic boy asks to go to the zoo by placing his thumb over the final digit in the year 2009, and approximating the spelling of “zoo” with the symbols available to him. Without the framework of an algorithm of autistic sociality, these communication strategies might be dismissed as mistakes rather than being treated as uniquely ingenious and valid ways of communicating through different kinds of communicative media.

The Emotional Intensity and Tempo Domains

In these two final and connected domains, Ochs and Solomon focus on the problematic features of the baby talk register, which is a highly emotive, sing-songy, and slowed down version of talk used in adult-child (and often human-animal) communication in the U.S. and some other countries.

Ochs and Solomon observed that baby talk pervaded the language of the autism-focused speech therapists they studied, for whom the musicalized and exaggerated stretching out of syllables is a way to model each of the sounds that compose words.

The features of baby talk are thought to simplify communication and create emotional bonds with babies and young children, but Ochs and Solomon warn that a combination of intense emotion displays, pitch changes, and slowed down words “may prove to have the opposite effect for children with autism. These characteristic features in tandem may conflict with autistic impairments in sensory processing and attention.”

Nancy Bagatell (2010) notes that many autistic people report sensory processing differences that include oversensitivity as well as reduced sensitivities, and medical researchers Grace Baranek and her colleagues (2006) reported that “approximately 70 percent of people with autism experience sensory-perceptual differences” which include heightened hearing and hypersensitivity or confusion when too many inputs occur at the same time.

Baby talk register, which is an intense register with frequent changes in volume, speed, pitch, and emotion displays, may be specifically poorly designed for autistic children:

“Family members, and therapists tirelessly work to find the door to autistic sociality, but the door may be obscured by their abiding reliance on heightened emotion coupled with slow speech [baby talk] as the path to orderly social coordination” (Ochs & Solomon, 2010, p. 85).

Ochs and Solomon note that educator Soma Mukhopadhyay, who does not use baby talk, uses a brisk, rhythmic, calm, emotion-, pitch-, and volume-moderated approach (coupled with her side-by-side orientation and mediated shared focus on letter boards or tablets) that “may have the effect of drawing the children into active and orderly social engagement.”

In this and the other domains of autistic sociality, focusing on the communicative strengths, interests, and sensory preferences of autistic children supports them in all areas of engagement, communication, language skills, and sociality.


Neuroscientist Laurent Mottron suggests that many “people with autism need opportunities and support more than they need treatment,” while anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker suggests that neurotypical society “often lacks something – a theory of sociality that can encompass a wide range of human social differences.”

The matrix of autistic sociality treats autistic people as valid people who have valid ways of thinking, communicating, and being social. As a reminder:

  • Use the family’s own language in the home.
  • Welcome the child’s focus on objective knowledge, if that is the child’s area of interest.
  • Do not waste time enforcing eye contact or face-to-face alignment if the child doesn’t enjoy it; eye contact is not necessary, and may actually impede learning and thinking.
  • Learn how to focus on things that are interesting to the child, and join in on his or her interests. Do not try to enforce your interests on the child.
  • Learn how to teach, interact, and share teaching materials and items of interest in a side-by-side or oblique alignment.
  • Welcome alternate forms of communication rather than focusing on speech. Use visual communication, writing, pointing, music, computers, tablets, etc.
  • Speak at a normal speed and manage your pitch, your volume, and your emotional intensity. Make your communication clear and calming instead of stretched out and baby-ish.

A small but growing number of multidisciplinary researchers are challenging the autistic stereotype and finding, in many cases, that our knowledge of autism has been built upon unsupportable ideas about normality, intelligence, sociality, eye contact, empathy, language development, child development, and communication.

Much of this new, autism-positive research suggests that approaching autism in terms of valid human behaviors instead of medicalized deficits can significantly improve the lives of autistic people and their families.

This culturally sensitive focus on autistic strengths and preferences is more supportive to the child, and also more supportive to parents, families, teachers, and therapists, considering how much time and energy it takes to try to extinguish natural and necessary autistic ways of being.

Do you have any experience with these aspects of the matrix? If you try them with your autistic students or children, do you notice a difference? Please leave comments and questions below, and thank you for respecting the dignity, autonomy, and self-determination of autistic people.

Thank you!

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*A note about identity-first language: In my academic work, I use identity-first language (autistic child) instead of person-first language (child with autism). Person-first language is an attempt to foreground the person first, and to add the disability as an appendage, i.e., “person with learning disabilities.”

Though often well meaning, person-first language is a tactic that actually tends to underscore rather than sanitize problematic conditions. For instance, we would not say “man with handsomeness,” “woman with French ancestry,” or “person who is funny;” person-first language tends to be used only when the condition referred to is temporary, feared, or undesirable. Identity-first language challenges the idea that disabilities are something to hide, fear, or be ashamed of.

As Ellen Brantlinger (2009) writes, person-first language “is meant to convey respect for those labeled; however, harmful naming and sorting practices continue regardless of new and improved classifications” (p. 407).

Person-first language has also been very controversial in disability rights circles, and is not the accepted terminology for many disabled people themselves, especially for many members of the blind, deaf, and autistic communities. In these communities, disability-positive and identity-first language is often preferred, i.e. blind person, Deaf person, and autistic person, or simply, autistic (see Bagatell, 2010; Brown, 2011; Cohen-Rottenberg, 2012, and Sinclair, 2009).

Personal note: Though I use identity-first language for myself and in my academic work, if you and I were together and you requested different terminology, I would certainly use whatever terminology you preferred.