Unlearning Ableism: What is Superflex: Social Thinking?
25 May 2023
Unlearning Ableism: What is Superflex: Social Thinking?
The first person to be diagnosed with autism was Donald Gray Triplett, in 1943. He was born in 1933 and is currently 89 years old. This diagnosis marked the beginning of the journey of autism, one fraught with sexism and racism. After all, the initial studies conducted were only done on white boys, and what followed was a misconception that autism was only occurring in that demographic. Because neurodivergency can manifest differently in those assigned male at birth as opposed to those assigned female at birth, it remains difficult to this day for AFABs to get a proper diagnosis. The test is expensive and reportedly outdated, and as more AFABs have managed to get diagnosed and the definitions of these facets of neurodivergency expanded to allow for differences in manifestation, some psychologists have turned to ADD and begun to consider its existence as something of a copout, which is to say, a variation of ADHD that was assigned to those (often AFABs) who demonstrated every other common element of ADHD excepting the hyperactivity. However, it has been found that not every ADHD diagnosis has to involve hyperactivity, as neurodivergency manifests differently in every unique individual. Gradually, we are breaching that racist and sexist impact on the diagnostic process through the spread of language and information, but it is no pretending that autism isn’t a more recent discovery as far as discoveries go. While historians sometimes advise against it, psychologists can look back and more or less assess a historical figure’s characteristics to sort out whether they might have been neurodivergent. Still, though, the first ever diagnosis being in 1943 puts the world’s understanding of autism in a fairly new place. We are still in the learning-as-you-go phase.
Unfortunately, the learning-as-you-go phase involves fear tactics and manipulation. Enter Autism Speaks and other organizations set on frightening autistic parents and teachers into “ridding” their child of autism altogether. Autism Speaks suggests that there is a possible cure to autism, and perpetuates negative and harmful stereotypes onto the autistic community. These stereotypes and messages do much more harm than simply reaching hateful or willfully ignorant people. They reach very well-intentioned, educated people as well, and disguised as an adequate source for information, becomes a means of spreading confusion. While Autism Speaks is becoming more called out by the autistic community in more recent years, other, less-known companies do some of the same kinds of harm. The one that will be in focus in this essay is Superflex: Social Thinking, a series of educational texts and paraphernalia that promises to help the autistic child hide their autism out of sight and out of mind.
This issue is especially pressing in that children are being raised with harmful lessons that don’t actually do as much as one would think. A lesson to teach a child to hide their neurodivergency, or, in more popular parlance, “mask” it, only stands to lead to a difficult internal struggle that best case, is rejected by the individual, and worst case internalized to the point of mental health issues. The only “benefit” is that the autism doesn’t affect those hoping not to be affected by it. While this might not be the intent of all those allistic (or not autistic) people implementing these teaching structures, these lessons celebrating hiding the manifestations of neurodivergency misguide and cause effective harm.
An autistic child should not be forced to enter into an internalized struggle as to whether they should conceal those characteristics not considered socially acceptable. The mental health of students faced with Autism Speaks and Superflex: Social Thinking is what is at stake, and it is vital that these changes be made for those who deserve to learn in the way that is best for them.
The most easily found sources on education and neurodiversity are those which speak for the neurodiverse community, and not those which come from the neurodiverse community. That is to say: neurotypical individuals who believe that they have studied neurodiversity enough to begin to lay claims on the preferences and beliefs of the neurodivergent individual themselves. Often, autistic and other neurodivergent individuals find themselves being spoken for by those outside the community, and this has an overwhelming tendency to block neurodivergent voices out. Immediately, the harm in the concept of removing a voice from a group is apparent, but the reality of that harm and its insidious nature can be far less clear. Very often, the voices of neurotypical speakers are mistaken by well-intentioned people for the voices of the neurodivergent community, and examples exist on both a social and academic level. Some such examples of neurodivergent voices being blocked out will now be addressed in greater detail.
Autism Speaks, an aforementioned organization that utilizes fear tactics and false information to push parents into attempting to “cure” their child’s autism, for example, chose an official color for autism, and began the “Light It Up Blue” campaign for autism awareness. While this could be misconstrued as a sign of support, the harm caused by this organization to the autistic community doesn’t quite make it the speaker most neurodivergent individuals feel comfortable representing them. To contradict the “Light It Up Blue” campaign, autistic individuals decided to speak for themselves, and chose the color red in direct opposition. However, if a person wanted to find out the official color for autism, they would have to look hard to find the “Light It Up Red” campaign led by actual autistic voices, and largely be bombarded with positive articles and texts praising the “Light It Up Blue” campaign. This is an example of autistic voices being stamped out to such a degree that any supportive individual would not know better without extensive research and a specific knowledge of what to avoid.
Another example is the issue of the language used when it comes to neurodivergent people. This can range from person-first/identity-first language to whether the term “disability” is appropriate. In more recent years, trying to find the proper language to refer to the neurodivergent community has become an issue, and the misconception that most people prefer person-first language emerged. This was the belief that (for example) an autistic person would prefer to be addressed not as “autistic person” but “person with autism.” While this narrative was pushed largely by the neurotypical community, and was an attempt at achieving respect for the autistic person and community in question, person-first language was largely met with backlash by the actual community, as most argued that their neurodiversity was a significant part of their identity, and not to be associated with shame or separated from them. Other instances include referring to disabled people as “people with special abilities”, a term known for its degrading quality and seemingly willful lack of awareness for the struggles that come with not fitting societal neurotypical standards. Still, educated and well-intentioned neurotypical people alike continue to correct even neurodivergent people on the “correct” language to use, often saying that the appropriate thing is the thing assigned to the neurodivergent community, not the thing preferred by the neurodivergent community. This is another, social example of neurodivergent voices being interrupted.
As these neurodivergent voices continue to be cut off, texts emerge from perhaps well-intentioned but misguided people who have studied neurodiversity and come to a conclusion based on those loudest voices. Such texts as these are what will be addressed in this essay, and include the logic behind Superflex: Social Thinking, and other so-called “educational” articles. Those which do not come from a place of misunderstanding come from a place of wilful, dangerous, and entitled ignorance.
While neurodivergent voices often go interrupted, that isn’t to say that they allow themselves to be completely ignored. Autistic individuals take to social media, post and publish works, and repeatedly put their voices into the world so as to avoid going unheard. Articles have begun to emerge pointing out the flaws in texts that suggest dangerous teaching styles for neurodivergent children. Attacks on the concepts behind organizations like Autism Speaks have more recently been initiated, and while social change has begun in terms of genuine neurodiversity awareness, academic change and change to the commonly-used academic texts must follow, and that is what this essay will seek to address.
The history of ableism is overwhelming enough and damaging enough that it continues to give power to the academic texts that this essay will address. The fear tactics this and other organizations employ do not just find their way into harmful advertisements and online articles, but invade movies, popular media, and even classrooms. The final product is a misguided perception of neurodivergency, and this has provoked educators of all experience levels to look at neurodivergent people as a kind of lost cause. This also is due to the constant villainization of neurodivergent individuals, and the belief that if a person is not able to contribute to a society in a very strict, expected sense, then their contribution is not valid at all. Furthermore, an idea is propelled: the idea that accommodations as measures that can be taken to ease the access of neurodivergent people is cheating.
Ableism exists and thrives in many unique ways, and the ableism towards a wheelchair-bound person is somewhat different than the ableism towards an autistic individual. While often, accommodations needed by a wheelchair-bound person are ignored on the basis of laziness or lack of empathy, there are some indisputable facts. If a person is paralyzed from the waist down, and relies upon a wheelchair as a means of transportation, it is undeniable that one thing that they will need to get from one floor to the next would be either a ramp or an elevator. Disregarding laziness and lack of empathy, there isn’t any denying that they would need these things. Any person capable of common sense would know better than to insist that they walk. In this instance, accommodations are provided and no one views the wheelchair-bound person as “cheating.”
However, when a disability is not immediately visible (i.e. in the case of autism, OCD, ADHD, and etc.), this understanding vanishes. Suddenly, if a person with ADHD needs an extended amount of time to take their test, or extra graph paper, it “isn’t fair to the other students.” It is “cheating.” This extreme misconception not only stems from lack of empathy, but also from a form of ignorance, wilful or otherwise. If there is no visible disability, there is no disability. Watching a person take extra time on the test without consequence can sometimes be too much for a teacher to bear, because it looks easier.
This ignorance also stems, in part, from these historical villainizations and eliminations of neurodivergency. Neurodivergent students are not exempt from the already-harmful belief that current education is trying to escape: that every student must take the same test and all do well, that every student must engage in the same project and all do well, that every student must receive the same workload and thus benefit. In the common metaphor, the seemingly inescapable belief that every creature must successfully reach the top of a tree, whether they are a bird or a fish, continues to prevail. No room is left for individuality.
Thankfully, education is striving to and working towards the escape of this mentality. But where it continues to exist, many educators feel the need to ensure that neurodivergent children, who might particularly struggle with a system that requires every student to think alike to achieve a high grade, must do the same thing as everyone else.
To enforce this structure, language begins to become used and misused as a means of forcing and demanding cooperation.
This article will highlight and expand (in depth) on all of these things, and these elements comprise the necessary background information.
Superflex: Social Thinking takes some educators months to study and implement. Still, when asked what neurodivergent-affirming lessons one anonymous head of special education whom I interviewed incorporated into her curriculum to compliment Superflex, she balked. She had no answer for how to avoid the absolute villainization of the manifestations of neurodivergency aimed at children through Superflex. She explained to me that teaching autistic children was like teaching illiterate children. Where most children could read, some couldn’t, and these ones needed special training to “catch up.” Some fundamental flaws with this mentality follow:
“Catch up.” Illiteracy and ASD are apples and oranges. A child who struggles more than the average student with reading can be pulled aside and helped to learn. Illiteracy can be untaught. To compare the two suggests the harmful idea that similarly, autism can be untaught. A head of a special education department surely means well, and was quick to question my qualifications as an autistic young adult exposed to these teaching structures, but the sad reality is that most professors and special educators are neurotypical with some kind of masters in psychology and no real experience or ability to empathize with the autistic child. And unfortunately, as we have addressed, the voices of the neurotypical community who like to speak on the neurodivergent community often overwhelm and block the voices of the neurodivergent community itself.
This begs two questions that will be addressed in greater depth as the paper proceeds: What is so wrong with Superflex: Social Thinking? and What are the neurodivergent-affirming teachings that the special education instructor was so completely unfamiliar with?
To begin, we will start with the second question, the easier of the two. Neurodivergent-affirming practices are teachings that work in conjunction with the neurodivergent student’s experiences and the manifestations of their neurodivergency. An example might be encouragement to pursue their hyperfixations as a course of study, and the building of a space to do so. Other examples might involve discussions or therapy-esque sessions involving the positive qualities behind an ability to hyperfixate, or focus with great intensity on a certain passion, a trait heavily associated with the neurodivergent community, or on the positive qualities behind other such manifestations. What is often missing in today’s day and age from the neurodivergent child’s lessons is any kind of positivity. They are verbally rewarded for doing a good thing, of course, but that good thing comes largely in spite of their neurodivergency in many cases, leaving their very real experiences outside of those that are socially “acceptable” ignored or treated as a kind of challenging dilemma.
One popular instance of this style of teaching that appears in younger levels of education across the United States is the phrasing “expected/unexpected.” An analysis into the connotation revealed that those educators that use that language have not considered its linguistic harm. The reality of creating a dual-use for terminology is that both definitions of the term will become tied at the hip, and if one definition has one connotation, the other will develop that connotation and meaning. This is the case of “expected vs. unexpected” terminology in education.
The action is this: the educator develops two terms for the neurodivergent child. The first is “expected.” Outside of the classroom, “expected” means what one might be most familiar with it meaning: “I expected a cake today,” means a cake was anticipated. Expected, in this context and with this meaning, has neither a positive nor negative connotation. Emotionally-speaking, it is neutral. In the classroom however, it might be used as follows: “Nice job doing what is expected!” In this instance, expected takes on an extremely positive meaning. “Expected” in the classroom, transcends even that traditional meaning of “This is what is expected of you”, and develops the meaning: “what one should, or must be doing.” The “expected” thing is the right thing, and if you are not doing it, you are falling short.
The second term is “unexpected.” Outside the classroom, “unexpected” means: “This surprise party was unexpected.” Like “expected”, “unexpected” contains neither a positive nor negative connotation. It too is neutral. In the classroom, however, it is used as follows: “Should you be doing this right now? Being on your chromebook is unexpected.” In this case, “unexpected” changes to mean: “what one should not, or must not be doing.” It does not mean that the educator is surprised that the child is on their chromebook. Now, “unexpected” develops a very negative connotation to contrast “expected’s” overwhelmingly positive one, and its meaning is very different from that of the word outside of the classroom.
So wherein lies the harm? Teaching children at a young age to adhere to this structure and embrace this vocabulary serves to create long-lasting and damaging effects. Children exposed to this language will develop an altered understanding of the words “expected” and “unexpected.” “Expected” now takes on this dual-meaning of both “anticipated and what one should and must do” while “unexpected” develops the double-meaning of both “unanticipated and what one should not and must not do.” While most neurotypical children are encouraged to think outside the box and expand themselves—to accomplish the unexpected, even—this lesson is that neurodivergent children must do no such thing. Worse, even, it buckles down on an ableist idea that any action that is not socially anticipated is an inappropriate action. These children are only being exposed to teachers using this language, but as they grow older and adjust to the combined meanings of the words, those words’ impacts will continue to affect them. After all, a disability often manifests as a socially unanticipated thing, and children will be encouraged to hide their neurodivergency and do only what is “expected.” After all, what is “expected” is good, and anything that is “unexpected” is bad. Furthermore, the phrase “not expected” is not used. One could possibly use “It is expected that you complete your homework” or “It is not expected that you leave problem eight incomplete,” and still keep the phrases within their typical, initial connotations without making any significant change. That is not what has happened, though. The phrase being used for a negative action is “unexpected,” and this selection is no accident. Its intention is to prevent further “unexpected” action.
This kind of teaching is used as a reward/punishment system for neurodivergent children. A celebration of achievements is paired with “expected”, a let-down is paired with “unexpected.” The child doesn’t necessarily experience only negative effects. Rather, when they are celebrated, the word with its newfound connotation is pinned to that celebration and made exciting. It condemns their neurodivergency, but in a positive way and from a trusted adult, one who might not even realize the inevitable harm their language is causing. Nevertheless, this is far from a celebration of neurodivergency or a neurodivergent-affirming practice, as it continues to treat neurodivergency (or “unexpectedness”) as the problem that must be overcome.
This teaches the child to conceal their neurodivergency the older they get, which leads to some problems. Firstly, while concealing neurodivergency might seem an awful lot like the perfect solution to a neurotypical onlooker, the only difference between visible neurodivergency and hidden neurodivergency is that that neurodivergency is affecting either one person, or more than one person. The neurodivergent person is still neurodivergent whether they reveal that neurodivergency or not. Their experiences continue to occur, regardless of whether the onlooker is conscious of them. Forcing a neurodivergent person to conceal their experiences, and any associated struggles that come from trying to always be “expected”, does not make that neurodivergent person’s life any easier. Rather, it makes it harder; places more effort onto them and less onto the person who hopes not to be affected.
In more recent years, autism has been embraced for its full definition: Autism Spectrum Disorder. “Spectrum”, of course, meaning a broad scope of things. Autism manifests in varying ways at varying degrees. This spectrum was initially misunderstood as a contrast between “high functioning” vs. “low functioning” individuals, language now considered insulting as it disregards that spectrum and the many traits a person (any person really) will possess. To assume, for example, that an autistic person is “good at social interaction,” simply because they present that way is to disregard their potential hidden struggle with that issue. Their ability to socially interact in a way that pleases neurotypical people is not an indication that it is easier for them to interact than it is for another person whose interaction is not pleasing to a neurotypical person. Rather, it is an indication that their efforts have little impact on you. This is the idea behind masking, behind the encouragement to “be expected”, and behind all of the work being put onto children to minimize and conceal their neurodivergency as they grow up.
Forcing people to hide their experiences does not make life easier for the outsider only. It also leads to underdiagnoses. Another element (besides the sexism) that led to a lack of diagnoses in neurodivergent AFABs has been the forcefulness with which social expectations have been pressed onto this specific demographic for centuries. Many autistic girls, for example, have been raised under a low tolerance for a sensory overload or social struggle. As such, they will have been inadvertently taught to hide those manifestations at the risk of facing punishment; if not parental or academic, then social, as they grow older. This concealing of manifestations can occur for years, leading to a form of masking so severe that it is difficult to diagnose these girls, especially if they are grown up. Often it is difficult for a person who has been masking for much of their life to identify even for themself what is masking and what is genuine.
Of course, in the long run, as was previously addressed, this accidental masking does nothing but long-term harm. The sheer amount of effort that goes into sorting through and adhering to those social norms and expectations can be physically and emotionally draining. Being forced or forcing oneself to maintain that for hours, days, weeks, months, years, is seriously detrimental to a person’s mental health.
Unfortunately, changing the connotation of two words is not the worst that it gets, even in progressive education systems. Just a step down from that is Superflex: Social Thinking. The idea behind its main lesson is simple. The neurodivergent child designs a superhero for themself. They can design this superhero however they so choose. The superhero they have created is then faced with a seemingly insurmountable number of villains: monsters shaped like brick walls, tornados, or vicious-looking octopi. The child’s superhero must respond to these villains by destroying them, thereby saving the day.
The villains are common manifestations of neurodiversity. One villain stands for “not socially thinking about others.” Another is “hyperfixating on a topic or thing.” Another is “being overly competitive.”
The child is not encouraged to have their superhero engage or cooperate with these villains. In fact, these villains are portrayed in an evil a light as possible, appearing with wanted posters like the bad guys from comedic westerns. The superhero must annihilate the villain and demonstrate how the child must “actually” handle a situation in real life outside of what their “villainous” inclination might be. The child then goes through a curriculum, facing a villain perhaps once a week, if not on a more regular basis, and demonstrating how their superhero will destroy the manifestation of the neurodivergency that they experience in their day-to-day. These manifestations are characterized as inherently bad. There is no positive to them. The child must defeat them.
Rather than begin by listing the various threats a mentality such as this poses to a child’s or young adult’s mental health, I’ll start by listing the very real, quantitative issues with this curriculum. These issues are simple and together, pose a confusing dilemma: why is Superflex: Social Thinking allowed in schools at all?
The first issue is that the person who created the Superflex: Social Thinking textbooks and designs has only one major qualification, and that is that she created the Superflex: Social Thinking textbooks and designs. She did get her work checked by an actual scientist, who gave it the a-ok, but other than a handful of glowing recommendations, Superflex: Social Thinking has dodged all legitimate peer-review. Its findings are unscientific. It has no basis for its ideas.
Okay, no basis for its ideas is a pretty bad start. But a basis can be created, can it not? And surely tests have been run regarding the effectiveness of Superflex: Social Thinking prior to its creation (and hopefully before its implementation).
Yes, tests have been run. A grand total of two, for X number of schools nationwide using some form of Superflex program. Well, two is better than none. Unless, that is, if neither relied on the scientific process. And you guessed it, that is the case. During these tests, steps were simply skipped. One test ended inconclusively, while the other ended positively, but skipped elements of scientific testing altogether and never bothered to create a constant off of which it tested.
While Superflex revels in glowing reviews, a legitimate scientific article (titled “Social Thinking®: Science, Pseudoscience, or Antiscience?”, and available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4893033/) explains that excited parents and teachers aside, Superflex can be catagorized as one of three things: science, pseudoscience, or anti-science.
While I confess I expected it to be anti-science, and while Superflex: Social Thinking does contain some elements of anti-science, it was scientifically found to be pseudoscience, as it is backed by no actual science but pretends to make scientific claims, and promises results it cannot stand by for lack of research or real psychological understanding. This contrasts with a key element of anti-science: that it simply rejects a scientific idea altogether. Superflex: Social Thinking does respond to real, scientific things, but in an altogether unscientific way.
The Superflex: Social Thinking training that teachers undergo before implementing Superflex into their lives and curriculums is intense, for little reason. Superflex has no long-term positive side-effects. At best, its suggestions can be ignored. In interviewing two students who were educated using Superflex: Social Thinking several years ago, I found that both maintained a significant distaste for Superflex, finding it belittling, annoying, and a useless and largely unsatisfactory approach. Certainly, genuine science would suggest that they have made a good point, as Superflex: Social Thinking is entirely focused on concealing one’s identity and the manifestations of one’s neurodivergency, and does not present much room for self-love or embracing of one’s characteristics.
In my interview with the head of special education who touted Superflex: Social Thinking as a beneficial thing, I asked her what the difference between Superflex and intervention styles of teaching for autistic children would be. She insisted adamantly that there was a very real difference, but could only elaborate that the intervention was used mainly for autistic children, and that Superflex: Social Thinking could be used for all neurodivergent children (though it was mainly designed for autism). This demonstrates that while many have begun to move away from visibly harmful tactics and responses to autism, the unchanging reality is that outdated actions have simply shed their outdated terms in favor of newer, fresher-looking ones. And while an educator might be ashamed to suggest that she is putting the autistic children under her care through an autistic intervention, she would not be ashamed to sit her students down and encourage them to engage with Superflex.
All of this: the “expected/unexpected” language, the enforcing of curriculums surrounding Superflex: Social Thinking, this need to push children to mask—these are all elements of ableism manifesting into a school setting through inadvertent ignorance. Of course, there is as good a chance as any that it isn’t direct, hate-fueled ableism that leads to the production and sale of these texts. Far simpler: it is money.
Schools are looking to provide a simple solution for a complex issue to the parents of their students. Schools themselves are looking for simple solutions to the complex issues their students might deal with. Superflex: Social Thinking promises that: a simple solution. The easy way out. And while the creator of Superflex might not believe her own words, or bear any kind of distaste for the neurodivergent community that leads her to this kind of action, a more easily-identified motivation for these textbook sales lies in those words exactly: “textbook sales.” By appealing to what so many neurotypical parents and teachers want, Superflex is exercising a form of advertising and selling itself.
So, masking is bad for mental health and so on and so forth. However, don’t many autistic adults mask to get by? Shouldn’t a person hoping to benefit within a society learn to do well within that society if they can? And shouldn’t a school be tasked with teaching its children the importance of that?
To begin in a place of personal experience, I know I use masking in my day-to-day life. For the time that I went undiagnosed, I wondered—as many undiagnosed neurodivergent adults tend to wonder—what I was missing that neurotypical people seemed to find so easy. Once I figured out masking, however, I used it every chance I got when I needed a success. Interviewing for a new job, I made eye contact and shook hands firmly. At social settings in which I hoped to thrive, I drained any kind of social battery focusing on those social norms Superflex so appreciates. In fact, a list of to-dos and not-to-dos might have helped me earlier on, had I known and been able to articulate them. If I, and many neurodivergent adults, benefit from masking, then why should it not be taught?
To begin with, I will return to the point I made earlier about the spectrum on which autism falls. As everyone lands at a different place on it, my capacity to do one thing does not necessarily mean that a person who falls where I do on that spectrum in all but one way can do that same thing to the same degree. To attempt to force every neurodivergent person to mask when their manifestations of neurodivergency might be different than mine disregards the nuance that exists within that spectrum. Yes, some neurodivergent adults benefit from masking. Others do not, and that cannot be disregarded.
I am by no means proposing that kids do not learn their options. Giving children the vocabulary to understand their neurodivergency and respond to it in the way by which they find the most success is the best possible method with which to handle that aforementioned neurodivergency. I also am by no means proposing that a school hide those options. Conversely, I am suggesting more options.
The issue here is that when those children see those Superflex manifestations, they see villains. Villains that follow them from classroom to classroom, then from school to home after the day is ended, and to birthday parties and family gatherings and everything in between. There is no suggestion to work with these “villains.” You simply fight them off, an object easier said than done in this case.
Masking is an important part of thriving in society, yes, but there’s no denying that the society a neurodivergent person might be looking to thrive in is certainly an ableist one. The society we live in tends to benefit the charismatic individual even over the qualified one. Businesses look for “leadership qualities,” “cooperation with coworkers,” and so on. And often, at jobs that necessitate socializing, such as cashier and customer service jobs, masking is a key part of life. If we need to do it, why deprive children that option?
The burden of closing a social and communicative gap between the neurodivergent community and the neurotypical community is currrently placed entirely on the neurodivergent community. That is to say that as neurodivergent people, we are expected to keep up with the neurotypical community. The need to mask can feel something like a survival skill. While I would wish that no neurodivergent child would need to mask throughout their life, I do not argue at all that that child should not be presented with their options.
Where I disagree is the means by which these options are being presented.
The child should be taught that their neurodivergency can have both downsides and upsides. An example of an upside that I regularly turn to is my writing career. A hyperfixation of mine is writing, and as such I have spent a lot of my life practicing with it. While I was no child prodigy (not by a long shot), engaging with a passion for hours can help if you are trying to be effective at it. Why should a neurodivergent child who has the power and passion to do something great be taught instead to stifle their abilities and reject the benefits neurodiversity can give them? Hyperfixation combined with competitiveness can be a powerful mix, and the thought that a child would be pushed to reject that mix and their favorite things for the sake of the “expected” is unfortunate.
Schools are traditionally viewed as places in which a child can grow and expand, not be boxed in by the overwhelming presence of social norms. In being forced to adhere to a structure that is detrimental to the parts of neurodiversity that can manifest as strength, the school is rejecting a student’s full potential.
In my interview with the head of special education with whom I spoke, she explained that done right, the “expected/unexpected” language and Superflex: Social Thinking program yield definite benefits. She sited the two studies, clearly under the misconception that they were legitimate, and failed to acknowledge the possibility that this type of learning might teach a child that their passions and interests were not appropriate to have.
Masking might help a neurodivergent person hold down a job, engage with bosses and coworkers, and benefit in various social, intellectual, and academic settings, but forcing masking as an only option is what is at fault.
The reality is that masking is unsustainable. If it were not, its need wouldn’t exist. Autism wouldn’t exist, or would truly be as curable as Autism Speaks claims. To expect a person to mask and pretend their entire life is unrealistic, and to think that one can simplify it and teach a person to effectively pretend forever is also unrealistic. To provide that as an option is certainly reasonable, but forcing a person to mask is just another way of forcing that neurodivergent person to close the communicative gap for the neurotypical person instead of with them.
So what can we do instead?
The “expected/unexpected” language needs to be abolished. A replacement can be a change in language that effectively communicates similar praise or unhappiness at a thing being successfully or unsuccessfully accomplished or tried at. Another detrimental element to much of the language used in teaching is the hypothetical question. When a child does something that they shouldn’t, posing the question: “Is this the best thing you could be doing right now?” is harmful in that it makes the child think that they should not genuinely answer your question, and that your question must be followed up by a “no.” Giving the child more voice and more leeway and more immediate honesty allows for a relationship of greater trust and reliability within the classroom.
In the case of Superflex: Social Thinking, Superflex can be replaced by a less antagonistic structure. Rather than the common manifestations of neurodivergency being villainized, and the lack of manifestations being turned into a hero, a structure behaving like Superflex can promise to teach a child to cooperate with those manifestations (examples being: “How can I use my competitiveness to do well in my soccer game, while still being kind to my teammates?”, or “How can I learn everything I want to about my seaglass hyperfixation while still leaving time for schoolwork?”). This will allow for students to learn more about their neurodivergency from a neurodivergent-affirming angle.
The question of what to replace Superflex with, however, and what to replace harmful language with remains up in the air. While yes, new structures can be implemented in the place of harmful ones, what exactly those new structures might be and how best to avoid harm are still important issues. In an issue as sensitive as teaching neurodivergent children effectively, harm can be sneaky and quietly effective just as easily as it can be loud and overt.
There is no denying, however, that the children in these schools deserve to learn in a way that most benefits them. Neurodivergency is statistically associated with LGBTQ+ students. According to some studies, a higher number of autistic children identify as transgender or as some kind of gender nonbinary than neurotypical children. The reality of this is that autistic children are less inclined to understand the social constructs that define gender and what gender means to a society. While some use this statistic to bring immense harm to both the LGBTQ+ and autistic communities (following claims that autistic people attempt to “cure their autism” by changing their gender), its reality is that these neurodivergent and LGBTQ+ children are facing undeniably difficult times. Politically, these are dangerous waters.
For these reasons especially, these children need support. We simply do not have time to teach children why or how their minds work in ways we don’t approve. The individuality most teachers pledge to foster is blocked when they attempt to eliminate or soften what they perceive as issues. Responding to a child’s neurodiversity with care and caution, and not shaming that child for the experiences over which they have no control during a key part in their development is more vital than ever now that our climate is fraught with violence and dangerous mentalities surrounding these very students. Teachers’ missions in these times should be to keep their students safe and to protect them from these harmful mentalities that do so much damage to any one or more of their communities.
What can we change? We can attack the concepts behind Autism Speaks and seek to take away from its power and control. We can alter the concepts that forged Superflex: Social Thinking and present new structures that praise students for using the skills they have been given to the best of their abilities, and we can permanently change the language with which we address these children.
Terms like “differently abled” continue to be inappropriate, as they are belittling and deny the social structures that bring so many challenges to the neurodivergent community. It is appropriate to refer to neurodivergency and autism as a disability, contrary to the occasional belief that “disability” is now considered rude. Nevertheless, we can acknowledge that the social structures that suggest that a neurodivergent person is less or has less than a neurotypical person ought to be rejected. It is my sincerest hope that as we strive towards a better political, social, and environmental climate, we strive also to create a world in which the neurodivergent community can be genuinely appreciated for all that those within it have the capacity to do.