Accelerating Autism Awareness in Adult Education

LINCS Asynchronous Discussion

April is Autism Awareness Month! Join the Disabilities and Equitable Outcomes community in a conversation with Nikki Michalak, Principal Investigator of the Autism Professional Learning and Universal Supports Project at Illinois State University, where she serves as the Statewide Director of the Autism Professional Learning and Universal Supports, a project focused on increasing awareness and the use of evidence-based interventions and resources designed to improve outcomes for individuals with autism. Ms. Michalak will share resources to support learner disclosure, as well as classroom accommodations and instructional best practices. Bring your comments and questions to the conversation. 





I am pleased to welcome Nikki Michalak, Principal Investigator of the Autism Professional Learning and Universal Supports Project at Illinois State University.  Nikki has developed an interactive resource for adult educators to better understand and support learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

You might have noticed this year that the conversation around autism has expanded from awareness to acceptance.  Many of the national organizations supporting autism education have made this shift in language to help move the conversation from simple awareness to active engagement.    

Nikki notes that, "spreading awareness and supporting others in moving from awareness to acceptance, to appreciation and empowerment, and onto activism includes a process of self-reflection and continuous learning." 

To that end, she has developed this virtual space for us to explore ways to promote the acceptance, inclusion, advocacy, and celebration of autism. This includes tools, strategies, and other resources to help us take steps towards better supporting the needs of individuals with ASD. 

Check out this virtual learning space at the following site: LINCS Autism Awareness and Acceptance.  Once you've had a look around, come back here to share your new understanding, ideas, and suggestions for supporting your learners with ASD.   

Nikki will be joining us in the discussion to expand on what you find in this virtual space and answer any questions you may have about making your programs more inclusive for those on the spectrum.



Nikki, thanks for introducing me to the idea of "LEVELING UP" my ASD awareness and acceptance.  Your presentation does a great job of visually explaining what's meant by this term.

I wonder if you can share an anecdote from your work helping educators to level up and continue on their journey from awareness to (self-)advocacy? What have been some of the challenges and/or 'ah-ha' moments that you've seen in working with teachers?



Sure!  I think we have certainly seen an increase of people becoming more aware of autism, but that doesn’t necessarily make life any better for individuals with autism. To make a positive impact, people need to take what they know and use it to be more understanding, empathic, kind, and supportive. To truly impact the lives of autistic individuals, people need to be more accepting. What might acceptance look like? How is it different than awareness? To me, acceptance requires changing your behavior based on what you have become aware of. Here are some examples to help illustrate what acceptance might look like and sound like:

Example 1: Some individuals are uncomfortable with direct eye contact. What might you do to communicate acceptance? 

  • When someone uses atypical eye gaze, I don’t feel disrespected or assume they aren’t paying attention.  Just because someone isn't looking at your eyes doesn't mean that they aren't paying attention or focused.  In fact, some have shared that eye contact is painful.  Please remember this when interacting with someone who isn't giving eye contact.  Don't require someone to "look at me when I'm talking" but instead be accepting of neurodiverse eye gaze.

Example 2: Identity First versus Person First language

  • We've moved from a mindset of "finding a cure" to embracing the strengths and individualness of those with autism. The autism acceptance movement is now being led by people with autism, not only parents of individuals on the spectrum. Many self-advocates are using the terminology of 'autistic' when describing themselves. This is considered to be Identity-first language. Identity-first language puts a person's condition or disability before the person – for example, 'autistic children. Person-first language puts the person before their condition or disability – for example, 'children with autism'. In the autism community, many self-advocates and their allies prefer terminology such as “Autistic,” “Autistic person,” or “Autistic individual” because we understand autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity — the same way one refers to “Muslims,” “African-Americans,” “Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer,” “Chinese,” “gifted,” “athletic,” or “Jewish.” On the other hand, many parents of autistic people and professionals who work with Autistic people prefer terminology such as “person with autism,” “people with autism,” or “individual with ASD” because they do not consider autism to be part of an individual’s identity and do not want their children to be identified or referred to as “Autistic.” They want “person-first language,” that puts “person” before any identifier such as “autism,” in order to emphasize the humanity of their children. These issues of semantics are hot button issues, and rightfully so.  So what can we do moving forward? If they have disclosed their disability, ask which terminology the individual prefers.

Example 3: Some individuals with ASD (I flip between first-person and identity-fist language depending on who and what- working on this myself) think better when they can move their bodies (pace, fidget, etc.). What can I do to support movement?

  • When setting up a space for a group, organize the room to have ample space to get up from a chair or desk. Allow the person to pace while you are providing instruction.  


I invite each of you to look for opportunities to engage in the action of acceptance. How can you turn your knowledge into acceptance?

Hi Nikki,

Thank you for leading this LINCS discussion. As we all work toward improving both our understanding of autism and helping us use this knowledge when working with adult learners with autism. As we deepen our understanding, can you share ideas on how create an enviornment that is optimal for learners with autism? 

Kathy Tracey