Today at the Inclusion BC Conference, I had the opportunity to meet Paula Kluth, and hear her keynote address about inclusive practices in education.
Her message is powerful and one that I embrace: Inclusive education is the foundation upon which an inclusive life is built. She nudged her audience toward seeing inclusion as a process and to get away from seeing inclusion as a place, ie: the inclusion room (and the irony here made everybody laugh). She talked about the constant adjustment and unending work to support inclusion, and get it balanced, and raise the bar, and presume competency.
“Over, under, around, or through – find a way or make a way! Inclusion is not about a place – it is about the choices we make – it is about what we do… ” (Paula Kluth)
So these powerful messages were resonating with me as I headed up in the elevator to Ballroom D, with all of my materials, and the help of a lovely parent, Jacquie, whom I had just met and who was attending my presentation. (Jacquie… if you happen to read this – Thank you!)
I sensed I was a couple of minutes late in starting my own presentation. I was getting set up, while people were tricking in… and I was aware, as always, of the time.
I have so much material to cover in 1.5 hours.
That is a problem.
There is so much I want to share when I have the opportunity to talk about autism – I want to dispel the myth of lack of empathy. I want to give the message that social accommodations for those who process differently need to be worked on by those with the social strength as well as those with the social challenges. I want to leave people pondering whether our current paradigm is upside-down, because so often in our schools we expect those with the social-cognitive challenges to do all of the changing to ‘fit in’ to the existing system. I want to right this – and shift the paradigm so that the responsibility becomes a shared one – and so that those with the social cognitive strength do most of the work – or at the very least a fair share. I want to show how universally designed approaches can benefit students and build community within the school and the classroom, and make the case that this community and culture of inclusion supports our students. I want to share ideas that support Autistic students/students with autism and then sell the idea that these same strategies are good practice to support the social and emotional development of every child. I want people to understand the challenges that some autistic people face with understanding the perspective of others – and then in tandem with this – I want to DRIVE home the message – to consider the inherent bias – that non Autistic people are often not very willing or able to consider perspectives of those who are Autistic. I want to share that autism is not a coat of paint that is on the outside of a child like mine – but that it is a part of who he is to his very core, and that success should not be measured by the ability to pass as non Autistic. I want people to consider that denying authentic differences in processing or sensing or responding to the world is damaging to the sense of self – especially when we punish students for this. I want them considering that behaviour is communication, and to look for opportunities to use what they have learned with me as a springboard to their own learning. I want to leave people with a message that honours, and resonates, and has them questioning their practice in a positive way.
And… on top of all of this, I want people to leave with a set of strategies to use literature to teach useful social and emotional cognitive skills that will support development for their entire class in an inclusive setting.
Too much for an hour and a half… I know…
But I can do it… usually...
Usually – but not today…
Today I was stretched to get through all the bits and stories and perspectives… and frankly – I ran out of time. I was thrown… a little sideways…
…and that is okay.
When I began my presentation I explained that I don’t always use person first language – and I explained why this is the case and a bit about the neurodiversity movement. I checked if anyone had a language preference – as I am quite willing to adapt if this were going to make someone uncomfortable.
One of the participants said, “I don’t care what you use!” and then he shared “I’m Autistic.”
A young woman, who was sitting beside him added, “And I have Aspergers!”
During my presentation – this young woman, Tara, had much to share – and though it meant I didn’t get quite through everything as planned – there was something else really interesting that happened. I had the opportunity to model what I was talking about. I had to shift and change my best laid plans to accommodate others.
Educators need be mindful of this… in their word choice, movements, responses, and their actions – because ‘we teach who we are’ (a little Parker Palmer reference) – and sometimes the curriculum and our message needs to be more about our response to others than the actual materials.
I perhaps should apologize to those who were attending – that I let things slip away a bit – but this was not without consideration of something I see as being bigger and more important.
Sometimes we have to change the lesson plan – shift where we thought we were going… and we end up going somewhere that was not planned… but in the end we are all the richer for it.
There was an opportunity for Tara to read one of her poems aloud to the group when we were in the midst of distributing some of the handouts. I sensed that she really wanted to connect further and so I also let her know that I would love to chat more afterwards.
I didn’t want her to feel shut down… shushed… silenced…
If I believe in empowering the voices of Autistic people, and I do, then I had to see this as an opportunity. If I am talking about honouring perspectives and the power of inclusion… then I need to walk my talk… or it is all meaningless.
You see – I had recently read of an experience that Karla Fisher (of Karla’s ASD Page ) had at a conference. It is my understanding that the experience left her feeling like she was not honoured or listened to and that her perspective was discounted.
And this was there too – as a shadow – as I chose my words – took my steps – and did my best to honour all involved.
So I didn’t get through all of my stuff… but I think what happened was more important. Today the line between teacher and learner was blurred – and I can’t help but notice that this can be when the best learning happens… it can be tranformative!
After the presentation, Tara and I talked as I was gathering my materials, and then rather long after that in the empty room. We talked about advocacy and silencing and opportunity and other things that are not mine to share. I told her what my concern had been – that I had all of this material to get through – but that I didn’t want her to feel that she was not honoured. I asked her if she felt I listened … or if she felt shushed. I wanted her perspective – and I sensed that she appreciated my honesty is explaining what I had been trying to balance.
I wasn’t going to share here how Tara responded to my query about feeling listened to… because I didn’t want to make this post all about me… I thought I would leave it ambiguous.
But the truth is – today it was all about me. I was the one with all of the power. I was the one in the position to listen and honour, and also to model this for others: Autistic individuals, parents, support workers, educators, and…
Part of that honouring and respect is about being willing to share the power – to give some of it away. In doing so, we give up some control; we may not get through every slide… but we create a shared experience.
So… yes, Tara did feel listened to and respected – which is important information for me to further shape my practice and guide my future steps.
As an educator, it is critical to understand what works for others – and how my actions and responses affect them. I also need to be mindful of opportunities which may unexpectedly arise for me to listen to, support, encourage, and empower the perspectives of others.
I will be considering ways to shorten my presentations, so that there is more room to be flexible and adjust to the dynamics or needs of a particular group.
I was stretched today… in a good way. I certainly didn’t get it all right – and I think that is okay. I have said before that I am a work in progress – and that this is not an excuse – rather it is a commitment.
A final note: Our discussion and my account of my experience and learning today have been shared with Tara Torme’s permission. The poem Tara shared is embedded in this video: The Silent Meow – Asperger Syndrome Documentary and she has a book of poems and short stories available for purchase on Amazon.ca.