|I'd like to tell you a story that I've been wanting to tell for many years, but haven't gotten myself to write about until now.
I was first exposed to students with disabilities when I started working at a brand new, cutting-edge, trailblazing inclusion school.
The premise of the school was to have neurotypical students as well as those with different diagnoses, all learning together in the same classes.
One day in 2013, I was cleaning up the small auxiliary classroom area from the previous class’s activity when a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) and her intern brought one of the students into the room for his speech therapy session.
This student was 11 years old, autistic*, and mostly nonspeaking. Due to years of daily work and commitment by both himself and his mother, he communicated by typing with one finger on a laminated paper letter board.
We (the staff) knew him as a philosophical, academic young man with a clever sense of humor. He read, wrote, and did math above grade level.
He also had extreme difficulty with everyday tasks - especially those that required motor coordination, like unwrapping his lunch or tying his shoes. He stimmed almost constantly by waving his fingers in front of his eyes or watching the flags outside blow in the wind.
All of this was fine. We knew that he was highly capable and paying attention even when he didn’t appear to be, and we also knew that he needed a lot of support to get through his day.
Speaking verbally would never come easily to him due to his lack of motor coordination, but he still had speech therapy sessions several times a week.
So, back to the speech therapy session on that day in 2013.
I wasn’t paying full attention to their session, since I was focused on my task.
They were looking for some kind of response from the student - probably asking him to repeat words or answer questions.
He was most likely looking around the room, fidgeting incessantly, or possibly laughing (an involuntary thing for him).
When they did not get the desired response, the SLP stopped what she was doing and said: "Hey, do you even want to speak? It seems like you don't even care."
He, of course, looked back at them in silence.
Can one presume too much competence?
I was just an inexperienced admin assistant and still in college, but this felt wrong to me. Instead of saying something, I finished my cleanup and left the room - an action that I regret to this day.
Now, I’m not telling you this story to portray the SLP as some kind of evil villain. In fact, she was a highly competent, experienced, licensed professional with a good heart.
She got into the field to help people. She increased access to communication for dozens of children and their families. She may have been having a rough day or had too full a caseload.
Knowing what I knew about her from previous interactions, I think this was actually a time when she took presuming competence too far.
I think she believed in this student’s intellect so much that she thought he could will himself into coordinating his facial muscles into coherent speech if he really wanted to.
And you know what? I, too, have caught myself thinking like this before.
There have been times when, on the hundredth time explaining something to a student, I’ve wondered if they even care. If they’re just "doing this on purpose" or messing around.
There have also been times when I’ve chosen to view stimming, movement-seeking, self-regulating, and even challenging behavior as intentional "misbehavior" or a lack of interest instead of adaptive responses to unseen internal processes.
Not only does this do a huge disservice to the student, but it is purely and unnecessarily exhausting for me as a teacher.
The One Thing
I would say it is perspective.
It’s knowing that there are infinite ways of being in the world, and they are all okay.
It’s knowing all the different ways that "paying attention" can look.
It’s knowing how to spot the difference between bottom-up and top-down behaviors.
It’s knowing how dyspraxia, sensory profile, and environment can affect every aspect of a student’s appearance and response.
And, it’s knowing where intelligence intersects with support needs.
Looking for Perspective?
I’m not a special or innately talented kind of person. I didn’t wake up one day being very good at my job.
I’m a regular person who has spent a lot of time learning from neurodiverse and disabled students and who has condensed everything I’ve learned into a course for you.
If you want to feel confident teaching students with disabilities, check out the course below.
If you haven’t already, check out my 45-minute free training to get a glimpse of the kinds of things I cover in the course. It's packed with value, even if you don't end up taking the course.