Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Student Voice

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I have recently been involved in a course sponsored by the Toronto District School Board in conjunction with TakingITGlobal called Empowering Student Voice in Education. When I first heard of this course I immediately knew that I wanted to be involved in it. I am a middle school teacher working with students who are on the Autism Spectrum, and I wanted to learn about student voice and how to hear it! As we discussed the topic I always took it back to my particular setting. How did each of the ideas brought forward look in my class? I soon realized that the issues that exist throughout the world, regarding engaging student voice are the same that I see in my class. I was able to confirm for myself that students with exceptionalities have the same issues, blocks and desire for voice.

Student voice simply put is a student’s opinion, perspective, and participation. With this definition and in the context of education, student voice means providing a space where students are able to express their opinion, perspective and participate in what and how they are learning. In addition, student voice, to be effective, would have to also have to be included in the planning, administration and policy decision making of the education system. The voice must be all inclusive otherwise it is only ‘lip service.’

During my teaching experience of the ASD students in my class, I have been told by some that “these” students do not have opinions, the implication being that they could not possibly exercise voice on issues. I was quite disturbed when I heard this. I did not agree since my experience had showing me quite the opposite. My student whether verbal or non-verbal all demonstrated they did have very specific ideas and views on many issues. If we listen we will hear their voice coming through. In some cases they have to learn that they do have a voice and a right to give it. I have found that like other students, some will do it through language, others through art, and others through the use of technology. As I embarked on my journey through the “Student Voice” course, I was attentive for ideas and understanding to how I could create opportunities for my students to further exercise their voice.

As we discussed the essential questions of the course I concentrated on two: What are the barriers to meaningful student involvement and student voice? And, how can student voice help create learning partnerships between students and teachers?

I believe that when it comes to teaching students with exceptionalities, the biggest barrier to meaningful student voice is the pre-existing ideas and stereotypes that exist regarding the particular exceptionality. Consequently in order to have meaningful student voice, educators MUST eliminate the stereotypes. Once we do this, we then need to provide a space where conversation, whether spoken or in other forms, can take place so that students can learn the skills needed to develop their voice and be heard. As a teacher, I have to come to the class believing that my students have voice and that they want to provide input into the process of learning. On many occasions I will ask my students, “What should we do today?” By listening to what they say I can determine whether certain curriculum materials will be grasped on that particular day. If my students come into class having dealt with a sleepless night (which is common among ASD students) I do not want to teach a complicated lesson that requires extreme focus and concentration. Rather I will modify my plans to address my students’ voices and teach something that will engage them and work with their current disposition. If they are dealing with anxiety I must stop and address that before I can go on and teach a lesson. If they come in with a question that has been puzzling them, they must know that they can ask it and that I will address it. Gone are the days of stringent, unalterable lesson plans. Instead, these must be replaced with “Teachable Moments!” moments initiated by the students themselves. This type of discussion can relate to any curriculum area that needs to be taught. Students are insightful and tell us what they like and dislike and in these moments what they are actually communicating to the educator is their particular learning style. If we as educators are listening we will attain greater results. In this exchange both the student and the teacher have become better learners and have co-created the learning process.

Students, regardless of their ability have opinions, dreams, ways of learning and interest in what happens to and with them. As educators we are responsible for paying close attention and listening to the voices in our classroom community and school community. This will foster a strong partnership with those voices and create a symbiotic relationship where we as teachers are learning and they as learners are teaching. We are creating a supportive learning environment that inspires positive self-esteem and self-confidence not only in our ASD student but all our students!


Natalina Sicilia (teacher/learner) ASD Program Charles H. Best Middle School

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