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Educate the child, not the label

4 min read


As a therapist in the school setting, I’ve come to realize the importance of preparing curriculum and therapy activities based on the whole child instead of one characteristic or attribute. You wouldn’t want people to define you by one characteristic, so why would we do this with disabilities? A person with autism or with a speech delay is much more than that one specific attribute.

While especially true in special education, this idea should be conveyed across education. A child who loves art doesn’t want to be identified solely by his or her outstanding science skills. Maybe the quiet student in class is secretly the best actor or public speaker. It’s important to look past disabilities and other labels and truly take note of the individual’s strengths and needs.

In recognition of Autism Awareness Month, here are a few tips to ensure you’re teaching the child, and not the label. These ideas can be applied not only to special education, but to every classroom across the country.

  1. Eliminate labels from your thinking and speech. The best way to eliminate labels from the classroom is to change the way you think. Instead of saying “autistic students,” use a different phrase, such as “students with autism.” The disorder does not define the student, and that should be evident in your speech. Other students take note of your tone and language choice. If you change the way you think, you could also change the perceptions around you.
  2. Never assume. Just because a child cannot speak doesn’t mean he or she has nothing to say. There are many instances of communication devices allowing children who may have never spoken before to suddenly burst with interaction. Whether the student uses a speech-generating device, such as a DynaVox T10, a visual learning app on a tablet or another type of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, this is their voice — listen to it! And educate yourself on the device, so you can communicate with them to the best of your ability.
  3. Maintain high expectations. This should come naturally if you refuse to make assumptions about a child and enter the classroom with high expectations for each individual. Instead of presuming a student’s capabilities, teach with an open mindset and don’t look at a disability as a limitation. Yes, it may require special attention, but it also could be the source of many strengths. Creating curriculum with high expectations in mind will result in the type of instruction that leads to a higher quality of life for the student-in school and beyond.
  4. Tie general education into IEP goals. Yes, there will be specific challenges an IEP must address. Each student will have individualized goals in his or her plan based on specific learning needs, but that doesn’t mean other academic goals should be eliminated. Use general subjects to practice and achieve behavioral and social skills, and vice versa. An IEP helps each child attain the best quality of life by teaching both academic and life skills. Long-term and short-term goals should move beyond basic requirements to achieve the best possible outcome for a student.
  5. Include the student in the conversation. IEP teams are made up of individuals who bring different perspectives and expertise to the table. This usually includes the parents, teachers, therapists, etc. Whether in an IEP planning meeting or a parent-teacher check-in, be sure to include the child in the conversation! They likely have more insight into their personal strengths and needs and their input is valuable.

This Autism Awareness Month, let’s remember that we’re teaching children, not labels. If we make a conscious effort to focus on individual strengths and needs, we can better serve our students and help them realize their full potential.

Haley Gottlieb is a speech-language pathologist at The Hope Learning Center. She works with children who have a wide range of medical and developmental disabilities in both a clinical and educational setting. Haley has a diverse caseload, but focuses on student’s who utilize alternative and augmentative communication. She also provides individual and group therapy to students in the verbal behavior program.