What School Could Be If It Were Designed for Kids With Autism

Tracy Murray’s kindergarten classroom in New York City has a unique approach to supporting students on the spectrum.

Tracy Murray / The Atlantic
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A charming, bright 5-year-old stands out in his classroom at Maurice Wollin elementary school, on Staten Island, as an extremely social, kind, and curious child. He remembers more about his peers—names, significant events, likes and dislikes—than almost any other kindergartner at his school does.

But despite his genuine interest in his classmates and their well-being, he often struggles with interpreting their feelings and intentions—he has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). (This 5-year-old and the other students mentioned in this article have been granted anonymity to protect their privacy.) One morning last month, in the middle of a math lesson, a soft-spoken classmate accidentally bumped into his shoulder, and quickly apologized with a big, friendly smile. But the sociable child concluded that his classmate was being mean, and punched him in the shoulder, then dropped to the floor, crying, his arms flailing and his voice growing louder.

In many classrooms, a teacher’s aide might have pulled him aside, attempted to help him calm down, and encouraged him to be quiet. If he didn’t comply, and continued to disrupt other students’ learning, he might have been sent to a counselor’s office or the principal’s office, or have been sent home for the day. (Across the nation, students with disabilities are suspended at twice the rate of students without them.)

Instead, within seconds of his dropping to the floor, his teacher, Tracy Murray, raised a laminated sign with an image of her classroom’s “clubhouse,” a special stress-relief area where kids who feel emotionally overwhelmed can take a break and use relaxation techniques that their teachers and therapists have recommended for them personally. There, he sank into a black beanbag chair and started slowly squeezing a pink ball in order to soothe himself.

Once he looked more relaxed, Murray, a 26-year veteran of special education, sat down next to him while her co-teacher, Elizabeth Garber, continued with the lesson. Because many children with autism learn better with visual aids, Murray drew a simple comic strip—with stick figures and dialogue balloons—to represent what had happened with the student and his classmate. Once he saw that the encounter was an accident and that he could make “smart guesses” about his peers’ intentions in the future by observing their facial expressions and listening to what they say, he calmed down and returned to the math lesson.

The scene in Murray’s classroom unfolded as it did because the kindergartner is part of a program called ASD Nest, which places students like him alongside neurotypical students in classrooms led by specially trained teachers. ASD Nest, which is named after its goal of giving kids with ASD a nurturing place to learn and grow, is a collaboration between the New York City Department of Education and NYU. It launched in 2003 with four teachers and has since expanded to 54 elementary, middle, and high schools in New York City.

Nationwide, more than half of students with autism ages 6 to 21 spend more than 40 percent of their school day in a majority-neurotypical classroom, with about two-thirds of this group spending 80 percent of their day in one. In general, the rest spend most of their school day in a special-education class or at a school where all students have one or more disabilities.

When a student on the spectrum is present, majority-neurotypical classrooms typically have one certified teacher—many without special-education training—and one or more teacher’s aides, who help students with special needs follow teachers’ directions and complete academic tasks. ASD Nest, meanwhile, places two certified and specially trained teachers in each participating classroom, which allows one of them to provide one-on-one social, emotional, or academic support whenever the need arises, without disrupting the lesson or pulling a student out of the classroom. On top of that, each classroom’s two co-teachers meet weekly with occupational, speech, and physical therapists to discuss each student’s progress and share observations about what’s working and what isn’t.

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.

For instance, one pink-cheeked, shy student at Maurice Wollin excels in reading but recently failed a math test. Teachers noticed that many of the books he read were about dinosaurs, so they changed some of the math questions to include dinosaurs. His engagement and confidence soared.

ASD Nest represents a big philosophical shift for Murray, who grew up in the 1970s attending schools that made few accommodations for students with diverse needs. She remembers when, in fifth grade at her Catholic school, a teacher reacted harshly to a friend of hers who she now guesses was on the spectrum. After the student asked for help multiple times, Murray recalled, the teacher slapped his textbook out of his hands and yelled, “How dare you keep interrupting while others are thinking!” The student returned to his desk in tears and, overwhelmed, threw his chair against the wall. (Murray long ago lost touch with him, and never learned his backstory.)

When, as a child, Murray would ask her mother what she could do to help her struggling friend at school, her mother would tell her that she could become a teacher. Eventually, she did. After graduating from college in the early ’90s with a degree in general and special education (and after a brief stint at a Catholic kindergarten that she disliked because she found it too similar to her own schooling experiences), Murray began working for the Guild for Exceptional Children, a nonprofit school and day-care center for children and adults with developmental disabilities based in Brooklyn. Seven years later, she enrolled in a special-education master’s program and then accepted an invitation from a mentor to teach for ASD Nest.

Murray said that in the 16 years since she joined the program, she has come to focus less on exclusively academic goals and more on her students’ needs and desires, including their wishes to form relationships and be recognized for their individual strengths and contributions. “I’m not trying to change my students, eradicate their intense interests, or teach them compliance,” she said. “I’m helping them become the most successful they can be in ways that are meaningful to them.”

The shift in her thinking mirrors a larger, society-wide one. The animal-behavior professor and author Temple Grandin’s 1995 memoir, Thinking in Pictures, has been credited as the first narrative of autism by a person on the spectrum. It helped establish the idea that autism, as Steve Silberman put it in NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, is “both a disability and a gift.” The contributions of Grandin and other public figures on the spectrum—including the actor and writer Dan Aykroyd and the climate activist Greta Thunberg—have promoted the notion that autism isn’t something to be “cured” or eradicated, and that it is the result of natural variations in human genes.

ASD Nest was formed in the early days of this neurodiversity movement, and since the beginning, it has focused on helping students become more independent. One recent morning, a counselor brought a student back to Murray’s kindergarten class from a speech-therapy session. He scores well on tests, but panics when faced with anything unexpected, such as a slightly different daily schedule or a stranger entering a classroom. His therapist has been working with him on detecting visual markers in the classroom so that he can make inferences about what’s going on. Today, instead of having a meltdown upon returning to class in the middle of a lesson, he scans the room and quietly walks to his seat, pulling out his school supplies.

Every day, Nest students with autism also attend “social clubs,” which are intended to help demystify unstated norms, such as whispering in libraries and not talking to strangers in bathroom stalls. In social clubs, students read fiction, look at photographs, watch movie clips, and play games, trying to glean what the characters in the films and books, as well as their peers in the group, are feeling and thinking based on their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.

This all has been working well for the student who was practicing making inferences based on what he saw in the classroom. Last year, when he went to preschool each day, his mother had to fight with him to get him on the school bus. “This year has been such a change,” she told me. “Every day, he is talking about teachers, his friends, what he is learning.” He even teaches his family members about the appropriate voice levels in different settings and about notions of private space—information he learned in his social club this year. He has two friends he can name—a major milestone for him. It’s one of many that ASD Nest has helped him and other students reach.

This article is part of our project "On Teaching," which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.