Education as Advocacy: Learning from, with and for our Autistic Scholars

By: Sarabeth Weszely, Senior Writer
April 29, 2021

The extent to which we embody our mission of raising leaders who will advocate for themselves and others becomes especially clear when you look at our engagement with physical and developmental disabilities as a school. Ensuring equity for students and staff of all abilities is a longtime value of ours, as about one in four of our students each year receive special education services in some form, and we are committed to continually growing in this area. 

One of our two lessons from the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee this month set out to foster awareness and acceptance of autism and other disabilities in our school. Using first-person accounts from The Autistic Self Advocacy Network as a resource, the lesson gave students a look into some shared experiences between autistic people, and then ended with a call to action: How can we advocate for autistic people in our own school?

Here are a few of the prompts we gave our students:

  • Make friends with autistic classmates in the same way you would non-autistic classmates (sit together at lunch, join a club or walk home together, ask questions about each others’ lives).
  • Practice curiosity and patience when someone’s differences surprise you.
  • Focus on the strengths autistic students bring to our classrooms and school culture.
  • Identify stereotypes that might impact the way you interact with autistic people (and the best way to debunk these stereotypes is by getting to know autistic people!).
  • Speak out against bullying and exclusion whenever you witness it.
  • Check out the Spread the word to end the word campaign to learn about why the “R” word can be hurtful and hear other ways you can support your peers with all kinds of disabilities. 

One important way we hold ourselves accountable to pursuing equity year-round is by hiring staff members like Frannie Laughner, our Director of Academic Intervention Services. Frannie helps English Language Learners and students with individualized education plans (IEPs) or 504s access the services they need every day. She oversees various school programs and works directly with teachers, related service providers, and families to connect students with our many support services (including certified special education teachers, behavioral counseling, speech therapy, and access to assistive technology). 

Our learners’ needs are very diverse, but approximately 90 percent of our students who receive specialized support have high-incidence disabilities, such as specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, other health impairments, or autism. The goal of an IEP is for the student to understand their own learning and behavioral needs so that over time, with the support of teachers and family members, they can adapt and succeed in school and beyond, letting go of their IEP whenever it ceases to serve them well. 

“All humans are learning and growing throughout their entire lives — our brains are constantly evolving and making new pathways for learning and connecting with other people. Believing this is called having a ‘growth mindset,’ and it’s something that makes you a really resilient person. If you have a diagnosis or a disability, it just means that you need to be given different tools than most people to accomplish similar tasks, and if you are able to get those tools when you need them, you can be as successful as anyone else. People with disabilities are intelligent, capable, and very cool, and they should never be ashamed of who they are or what they need.

“When I joined IAL, it was because I saw that there was a healthy culture around inclusion and empowerment. I had never before seen an environment where it was so accepted that everyone was going to get what they needed and there wasn’t going to be any stigma or bias around it. The best part of my day-to-day work is seeing students and teachers create a plan to overcome a student’s struggle using strengths that student already has. Our students are such incredible people and I love seeing them lead their own learning like this.

“Throughout my time as Director of AIS, I’ve had many students approach me because they noticed that their friends were receiving services that they also wanted or thought they would benefit from: ‘Miss, I think it would help me to have a second teacher in my math class’ or ‘Miss, I’m having trouble with testing and I think it would help me to have more time to take my tests.’ So we do an assessment and maybe they need and IEP or a 504 and maybe they don’t — but the bottom line is that students know it’s okay to advocate for what they need.

“Students who understand the support they need and why are better advocates for themselves, and they are also more able to tell when they don’t need that support anymore. If students reflect on the way they learn regularly, especially when they’re receiving services related to an IEP or 504 plan, they become really well-informed advocates for themselves. Being able to recognize needs and strengths in yourself is the first step in being able to identify similar needs in others and advocate on behalf of others as well.”

– Frannie Laughner

To learn more about our support for families of students with special needs, click here

“I’m a proud parent of a child who is attending IAL for the first time this year. She has an IEP and she always was struggling in public school before being accepted last summer into the 7th grade at IAL . For the first time, I feel confident because my daughter is finally coming out of her shell. The teachers have open communication with the parents and they open their doors for families to be involved in the school. They give our kids opportunity and a better future. I am happy that my daughter is in this school and I want her to graduate from this school – from Inwood to college!”

 – Patricia Jaquez

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