Murray, who was one of the inaugural Nest teachers, thinks that the program is effective because of its focus on collaboration among the ASD Nest teachers, school therapists, and university researchers, which results in frequent adjustments in the classroom activities and strategies tailored to every student. “We don’t expect students to learn the way we teach—we teach them the way they learn,” Murray told me at her school, sitting next to bookshelves covered by curtains in order to minimize visual stimulation, which can overwhelm some of her students on the spectrum, much like clutter, bright lights, and loud noises can.
Throughout the day, Murray and other teachers in the Nest program provide explicit guidance about emotional cues and social norms—information that can be elusive and invisible to children with autism. By the age of 5, many children can deduce that a smiling, friendly classmate is not looking to start a physical fight. Children with autism can struggle to reach that conclusion, but many special-education teachers, including Murray, believe that the ability to pick up on social cues can be taught in a classroom setting. ASD Nest is one of the few academic programs in the country that implements this approach in the classroom.
Last year, before the student Murray sat with in the clubhouse was enrolled in the program, he frequently struggled to make sense of social interactions and often stormed out of his preschool classroom in a panic, unable to return to class and missing out on learning. Two months into kindergarten, he hadn’t excused himself from his classroom once.
“We have a permission to prioritize social goals over academic lessons if we see an opportunity,” Murray said. That contrasts with the traditional approach to integrating students on the spectrum into majority-neurotypical classes, which prioritizes academic development, often without addressing the social and emotional challenges that can make classroom engagement difficult. The Nest approach, in the long run, can help give kids on the spectrum skills that they need in order to live with some degree of independence as adults.
Each Nest kindergarten class typically includes four students with autism and eight neurotypical students, and Murray maintains that the Nest approach benefits all students, not just those with developmental disorders. “Learning how to perceive the intentions and feelings of others and manage your own emotions is good for all students, not just autistic children,” she said.
Stephen Shore, a special-education professor at Adelphi University who has autism, thinks that Nest is effective because it focuses on addressing students’ strengths rather than their weaknesses. Too often, he says, programs for students on the spectrum dwell on their deficits, such as their inability to pay attention for long periods of time. Nest teachers, meanwhile, get to know the strengths and interests of each student, and then extend them to the academic domain.