Autism Awareness Month is a time for everyone to make an effort not just to better understand people with autism, but also to try and make the world a little more comfortable for them. Special education programs should strive to create an environment where children with autism do not have to worry about stressors but instead can feel free to express themselves openly.
What is a safe space?
Safe space sounds like a simple enough term, but it is one that is thrown around a lot in modern discourse. That can make it hard to know what people mean when they use it. Generally, however, a safe space is one where members do not have to worry about being hurt or threatened. It is a little oasis away from everyday microaggressions.
The concept of safe spaces has been around for a while, but in recent years it has spread rapidly into various areas of public life, from university campuses to workplaces. Safe spaces have been established to provide support for individuals who have been marginalized due to their sexuality, gender, race, religion, and any disabilities they may have, whether physical or intellectual.. So, it makes sense that safe spaces can be created for people with autism too.
Why should special education programs create safe spaces for children with autism?
Much of the modern world is not designed for people with autism, even in its mildest forms. It is full of bright lights, loud noises and other forms of sensory assault. Society is built on complex social rules governing body language, politeness and other aspects of human interaction that people with autism often struggle to understand. Common behaviours of people with autism such as stimming are met with disapproval from neurotypical people.
Some people with autism deal with this by masking or trying to present themselves as neurotypical. This can work for a while, but the effort and stress involved can often lead to major issues later. Others do not manage to navigate the neurotypical world at all and experience regular meltdowns that prevent them from maintaining relationships or thriving in education. Having at least one place where they do not have to deal with this strain can be invaluable to their mental health.
How can a safe space be created in special education classes?
A safe space for a child with autism will take into account all of their needs. The physical design of the classroom needs to account for any sensory issues, providing lots of opportunities to engage all the senses without overstimulating.
Alternative methods of communication, such as computers, should be provided for those who struggle with verbal communication. Make the effort to interact on their level, where children should be free to stim and express themselves at will, provided that there is no danger.
Special education programs should always be designed for the needs of their students, however complex, and Autism Awareness Month is an opportunity to reflect on whether children with autism are truly able to feel safe and supported in your classroom, which is vital if they are to achieve the very best outcomes.