My Autism Course at CIIS

June 28, 2016

In May, I wrote a chapter for the book Disability Studies in Education, entitled “Teaching Critical Perspectives on Autism.” Disability Studies in Education (edited by Phil Smith, Gregg Beratan, and Elizabeth J. Grace) will be published in 2017. In the meantime, I’m sharing the whole chapter right here on this blog, in three installments. My previous blog post, Autism and the Pathology Paradigm,” was the first installment. This is the second installment. The third installment is the post entitled “Guiding Principles for a Course on Autism.” 

An Opportunity

A few years ago I was invited to develop and teach a new elective course on autism for the undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). CIIS is a small private college in San Francisco with a student body of approximately 1500. The undergraduate program at CIIS employs a social-justice-oriented critical pedagogy that explicitly encourages students to question dominant cultural paradigms and systemic social inequalities. Many of the students who graduate from this program end up going into psychology, education, and related fields. Many choose to remain at CIIS and pursue a Master of Arts degree in Counseling Psychotherapy, in one of the five different Counseling Psychotherapy concentrations the school offers (Community Mental Health, Expressive Arts Therapy, Somatic Psychology, Integral Counseling Psychology, and Drama Therapy). Graduates of these Counseling Psychotherapy programs at CIIS currently pass the California state licensing exam for psychotherapists at a higher rate than graduates of any other college.

The focus on critical pedagogy and social justice already built into the curriculum made the undergraduate program at CIIS an ideal home for a course intended to promote critique of the dominant pathology paradigm and its oppressive nature and consequences. And because a high percentage of the students were likely to go on to careers in psychology, psychotherapy, education, and related fields, such a course had the potential to ensure that the next generation in those fields would include at least a few professionals who had been inoculated against the pathology paradigm and learned to recognize and deconstruct it, and who had received a grounding in the neurodiversity paradigm and an exposure to autistic voices and autistic truths at a crucial early juncture in their education. Teaching this course was thus a perfect opportunity to make a small contribution to breaking the cycle of ignorance and bigotry and setting in motion some positive change in the realm of autism-related discourse and praxis.

The Program and the Structure of the Course

The specifics of how any given course is structured are going to vary considerably depending on the structural particulars of the school and program in which the course is taught. California Institute of Integral Studies is a unique school, and their Interdisciplinary Studies program a unique program, so no other course in any other program is likely to follow the specific structure of my Critical Perspectives on Autism and Neurodiversity course. The following outline of my course is offered only as an example of one possible course structure. Vastly different structures are possible, and vastly different structures will no doubt be necessary in different schools.

The Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies is an intensive hybrid B.A. completion program (hybrid meaning a blend of in-person classroom time and online work; B.A. completion meaning that students must complete general education requirements elsewhere before transferring into the program to finish their degrees). Over the course of a year, students attend 18 intensive weekends of in-person classes – Friday evenings and all day Saturdays, plus electives offered on Friday afternoons or Sunday mornings – with two-or-three-week periods of study, writing, and online participation in between those weekends.

I was asked to create my Critical Perspectives on Autism and Neurodiversity course as a two-unit elective course. This means that the class meets in person a total of five times over the course of ten weeks, with each class meeting being three hours long (there are a couple of 15-minute breaks in those three-hour class meetings, fortunately). In between class meetings, students do the readings (which are posted online either as links or downloadable files), and work on papers and other assignments.

First Class Meeting

Sometime in the week before the class first meets in the classroom, I send students an email in which I remind them that our first meeting is coming up, confirm the time and room number, and attach a copy of the syllabus. Apart from the syllabus, I assign no readings before the first meeting.

The Interdisciplinary Studies program at CIIS keeps class sizes small, and there’s a strong emphasis on class discussion as a key part of the learning experience, so students and instructors generally all sit in a circle in the classroom instead of the more conventional arrangement of students sitting in rows all facing the instructor. This class is no exception; all our class meetings are conducted sitting in a circle, with students having explicit permission to leave the circle anytime they need to.

At our first meeting, I introduce myself and we go over the syllabus and the various class rules and guidelines – including an explanation of my policies on accommodation of access needs and my invitation to engage in embodied expression of neurodivergence in the classroom. I let the students know that I’m autistic, and discuss ways in which my neurocognitive style is likely to impact their experience of me as an instructor – for example, the fact that I’ll make less eye contact than most instructors, the bluntness of my verbal communication style, and the possibility that I won’t recognize their faces if I run into them outside of school. Then I invite the students to introduce themselves, and to share anything they want to share about their own neurocognitive styles and access needs, their reasons for taking the course, or in what way the course might relate to their academic, professional, or personal interests.

Having established who we are and what we’re doing here, I dive into an introductory lecture on the neurodiversity paradigm and its essential principles and vocabulary. This leads inevitably to some good questions and class discussion, and then (after a break) I segue into a basic “What Is Autism?” lecture, including a simple overview of what distinguishes autistic neurological functioning from non-autistic neurological functioning.

As part of the “What Is Autism?” discussion, I invite students to share some of the things they’ve learned about autism elsewhere – e.g., in popular culture and news/entertainment media, in books, in other classes, or through personal experience. This is educational for everyone, and gives me a sense of what specific areas of student curiosity and what specific misinformation on autism I might need to address later on. Since the popular and academic discourses on autism alike tend to be characterized by ignorance, bigotry, false stereotypes, egregious misinformation, and sheer absurdity, it generally turns out that much of what my students have heard is wrong. I’ll comment briefly on each thing that’s shared; for instance, I might say, “Yes, that’s a widespread misconception that we’ll be talking about later on in this course.” It’s important never to shame or criticize the students themselves for having picked up bad information – it’s not their fault the overall state of discourse and education on autism is such a mess.

By the time we’ve had the “What Is Autism?” discussion and talked about whatever questions emerge from that discussion, our first class meeting is done.

First Set of Readings and Second Class Meeting

In between the first class meeting and the second class meeting, the students read the first set of readings, which I post online for them in the form of links, downloadable PDF files, and video or audio files, along with brief written commentary by me to provide context for each reading. At the present time, no book exists that would serve as an adequate textbook, especially given that I want the students reading the original writings of multiple autistic authors, rather than the various inadequate interpretations and appropriations of autistic authors’ ideas that have been published by non-autistic authors. Many of the readings I regard as essential to this course are posted on the internet but have never been reprinted in a book, while those few that have seen print are scattered throughout various books – a couple of important readings in one book, a couple of others in another book. Perhaps at some point in the future, I’ll take on the task of creating and publishing a suitable course textbook that compiles the various essential online pieces I assign. Even then, however, I would end up supplementing the textbook with links to whatever new and important autistic work will inevitably appear online after the book is published.

The first set of readings begins with various essential writings on the neurodiversity paradigm, including my own essays, “Throw Away the Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm,” “What Is Autism?” and “Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions.” After this come some historical pieces on autistic community and activism, such as Jim Sinclair’s “Don’t Mourn for Us,” “Why I Dislike ‘Person First’ Language,” and “Autism Network International: The Development of a Community and its Culture.” I supplement the readings with an assortment of videos – the documentary film Spectrum: A Story of the Mind is one of the videos I like to include in this first round of readings.

These readings and videos serve as a launching point for discussion when we gather in the classroom again for our second meeting. In the course of this second class meeting I lecture on topics such as the distinction between the medical and social models of disability, the history and present state of professional and public discourse on autism, the history and present state of autistic community and activism, and key areas of debate and contention. Between all of these topics and the many student questions and responses that inevitably arise, this second meeting of the class tends to be even more full and rich than the first meeting.

Second Set of Readings and Third Class Meeting

There are many people who cling to the pathology paradigm and vehemently oppose and criticize the neurodiversity paradigm. I’ve been listening to these people and reading their criticisms for many years, and what is most striking to me is that not once have I encountered a critique that contains an actual sound and valid argument against any aspect of the neurodiversity paradigm. Every critique I’ve ever encountered has been based entirely in straw man arguments – arguments not against the neurodiversity paradigm, but against absurd and disingenuous misinterpretations of the neurodiversity paradigm – or in false information that the critics seem to have simply made up. The most common of these misinformed arguments is that the neurodiversity paradigm is only supported by those autistics who are adept at oral speech and who score reasonably well on tests that measure intelligence by the cultural standards of affluent non-autistic white people. Devotees of the pathology paradigm refer to such autistics as “high-functioning,” a bigoted term based in the pathology paradigm’s presumption that there’s only one “right” way for humans to function – the neurotypical way – and that autistic people can be ranked as “higher” or “lower” based on how close they can come to performing the appearance of neurotypical functioning.

This is one reason that the second set of readings, which students read in between the second class meeting and the third, includes a variety of pieces by non-speaking autistic pro-neurodiversity activists such as Amy Sequenzia and Mel Baggs, who have a history of being labeled “low-functioning” by ableist professionals operating within the pathology paradigm – in other words, the sort of autistic activists that opponents of the neurodiversity movement like to pretend don’t exist. There are, of course, other reasons that the writings of these particular activists are included in the readings: the writings in question are good and have important things to say, and in some cases occupy an important place in the history of autistic culture (e.g., Mel Baggs’ self-produced video “In My Language”).

This set of readings goes on to explore the diversity of autistic personal and cultural experience (this is another reason to begin this set of readings with the words of non-speaking autistics: non-speaking autistic authors in particular have a history of writing evocatively about the varieties of autistic sensory experience). I include readings about the genre of autistic autoethnography, and a range of samples of autistic autoethnographic writing. I look for readings on the experiences of queer autistics and autistics of color; pieces like Alyssa Hillary’s “On the Erasure of Queer Autistic People,” and Kassiane Sibley’s “Here, Try on Some of My Shoes.”

All of this, of course, provides a wealth of material for discussion in our third class meeting. While the order in which particular topics come up varies each time I teach the course, depending on where student questions and class discussions take us, this third meeting is often the point at which I speak in-depth on two of the most egregious manifestations of bad theory and praxis generated within the pathology paradigm: the widespread canard claiming that autistic persons are deficient in empathy or “theory of mind,” and the widespread use of abusive Behaviorist methodologies like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to coercively train autistic children to perform neuronormativity at the expense of their long-term psychological well-being.

Third Set of Readings, First Paper, and Fourth Class Meeting

The third set of readings deals with the realm of professional theory and praxis around autism. Many of these readings focus on one of the two particular manifestations of bad theory and praxis mentioned above: the “empathy deficit” or “theory of mind” canard, and the use of ABA on autistic children. Melanie Yergeau’s brilliant critical autoethnographic piece “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind” is one of the pieces I always include. On the topic of ABA, there are a growing number of critiques by autistic authors to choose from; I always include Michelle Dawson’s “The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists: Ethical Challenges to the Autism-ABA Industry” and Kassiane Sibley’s “Indistinguishable from Peers – An Introduction,” “Conditioned Eye Contact,” and “Advocacy: Everyone Can Do It.” This set of readings also includes more general advice and insight for professionals working with autistic persons – pieces such as Judy Endow’s “We Are Not in Our Own World” and my own essay, “Neurotypical Psychotherapists and Neurodivergent Clients.”

I assign two papers for this course, and the first of these two papers is due to be emailed to me in between the third and fourth class meetings. Both papers are reflective essays rather than research papers. My choice to assign reflective essays is informed by the context in which I’m teaching this particular course: it’s a two-unit elective in a program in which I know that in their core non-elective courses, the students are already working on substantial research papers. At some point in the future I’m likely to teach an extended three-unit version of this course, perhaps in a graduate program, and in that sort of context I’d most likely make one of the class papers a formal research paper.

For this first paper, the assignment is for each student to reflect on the material we’ve read and discussed in the course so far; on how the material is relevant to the scholarly, professional, and personal interests and concerns of the student; and on how the material might impact the student’s future work. I ask students to bring copies of their papers to the fourth class meeting, and to discuss their papers and share excerpts with their classmates. The fourth class meeting also includes further discussion of professional theory and praxis around autism, and of how professionals can do a better job of working with the autistic population. Obviously, this is a particularly rich and important topic in a program where a high proportion of the students will go on to be therapists, educators, and/or psychology researchers.

Fourth Set of Readings, Second Paper, and Final Class Meeting

The fourth and final set of assigned readings is fairly small compared to the previous sets of readings. It consists of just a few short pieces about the portrayal of autistic characters in fiction (including television, movies, and comics as well as books). In addition to these readings, I provide the students with a long list of movies and television shows that include characters who are either explicitly identified as autistic within the movie or show (e.g., Linda Freeman in Snow Cake, or Abed Nadir on Community) or who are frequently interpreted as being autistic or recognized as autistic by autistic viewers (e.g., Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter movies, or the modern-day versions of Sherlock Holmes on Sherlock and Elementary). I include portrayals of autistic characters that I think are well done, portrayals that I think are based in negative stereotypes or otherwise problematic, and portrayals that are a mix of good and problematic. I don’t tell the students which ones I like or don’t like – I want the students to be able to judge for themselves, based on what they’ve learned in the class so far. As part of their reading, students are asked to pick a minimum of two or three movies or television shows from the list and watch them (in the case of television shows, they’re asked to watch at least two or three episodes of a given show).

This viewing of movies and shows featuring (canonically or non-canonically) autistic characters serves as groundwork for the second of the two papers I assign in this course. This second paper is a critical reflection on portrayals of autism in popular media and/or in various realms of public discourse, with the portrayals of autistic characters in the movies and shows that the students watched serving as examples (maybe as examples of stereotyping, stigma, or misinformation, or maybe as examples of good portrayals that defy common stereotypes and prejudices).

Once again, I have the students bring copies of their papers to the next class meeting to share. Sharing excerpts from the papers and discussing all the various movies and shows that students watched makes for a fun and relaxing way to wrap up the class in our fifth and final meeting.



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