Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.
Tracy Murray has witnessed a lot of change in her 27 years of work in classrooms. But in her view, no shift has been as radical—or as positive—as the difference in the way children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are viewed by society. Murray’s kindergarten class is part of ASD Nest, a program run by New York City’s Education Department and New York University; it includes kids with and without ASD in the same classroom and helps them all develop social and emotional skills. When Murray started teaching with ASD Nest in 2003, many of her general-education students were pulled out of the classroom by their parents, who cited concerns that their five-year-olds would regress academically if they spent every day with children on the spectrum. Today, many parents request to be a part of the program. ASD Nest is now running in 54 elementary, middle, and high schools across New York City.
This big cultural change is largely due to the advocacy of autistic people themselves, Stephen Shore, a professor of special education at Adelphi University who has autism, told me. Dorothy Siegel, a co-founder of ASD Nest and parent of an autistic child, credits a memoir about autism by the animal-behavior expert Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures, for making her rethink how to support autistic children in the classrooms. Ever since Siegel and her partners launched the program in a Brooklyn elementary school, Murray has been focused on helping her students on the spectrum develop independence and confidence. When I visited Murray’s classroom in November 2019, I asked her to reflect on the practices that work best in her classrooms. This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity, and the names of all children have been changed to protect their privacy.