Girl with autism who has presumed competence.

In years past, people with autism were often approached and treated with inaccurate assumptions about limitations. These assumptions largely stemmed from a lack of understanding of autism and the varying ways it manifests for people. The former approach presumed inability, which frequently underestimated the skills and comprehension of people with autism, and this resulted in unnecessary isolation.  As research has expanded our understanding of autism, we’ve learned how flawed those old assumptions were for people on the spectrum. Presumed competence is a strengths-based approach that assumes people with autism have abilities to learn, think and understand. At our autism learning center, we understand the importance of seeing every child’s potential to learn and meet high standard goals. When we presume competence as a whole, it shows respect for the many possible ways autism presents itself among individuals.

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Why is Presumed Competence Important?

When we approach autism with presumed competence, we are more likely to help people show the full measure of their abilities. If a student is met with a set of predetermined expectations based on an autism diagnosis, it robs them of the opportunity to demonstrate ability. For some students, this means that they may not have the option of participating in an advanced-level class as a result of misinformation about their comprehension skills. This is especially true for people with verbal challenges, who have historically been mistaken for having cognitive processing issues. Presumed competence helps educators to provide the least restrictive learning environment in which kids with autism can experience optimal academic and social benefits and truly be a part of their classroom of peers rather than feeling like an outsider. This means that kids on the spectrum get to form relationships with peers and teachers and develop important friendships, which can be a game-changer for school satisfaction. Kids who are presumed to have abilities are more likely to have access to an appropriate academic experience, and this can even impact expectations and plans for life after school is completed.

The Impact of Presumed Competence on People with Autism

What does it mean to presume competence and how does it impact people with autism? An important thing happens when schools and other institutions presume competence; people are no longer defined by their diagnosis! This transition in the way people with autism are viewed and treated is a significant departure from the old ways of thinking. We now know that autism is a spectrum disorder and this means that one’s abilities cannot be predefined by the diagnosis. No two people with autism are exactly alike, and because of this fact, we shouldn’t approach education with a narrow scope of options. That difference in perspective is key. Some may wonder, why is it important to presume competence? When we think about autism from an ability perspective rather than assuming a lack of ability to understand and think, we open doors to the greatest potential rather than establishing a predefined limitation. Kids with autism benefit when schools presume competence because it allows them to demonstrate their ability rather than be defined by the limitations of a rigid, predefined notion of what is possible. Presumed competence offers an inclusionary approach that brings students with autism into the classroom fully, rather than attempting inclusion through briefly sitting in with neurotypical peers and returning to a designated classroom. Presumed competence is the difference between, “let’s see what you can do,” and “here’s what you can do.” It is a philosophy that has the power to transform the educational experience for people with autism and it is based on the truth that expectations influence outcomes.

What Presumed Competence Isn’t

Nearly as important as describing what presumed competence means, is the explanation of what it doesn’t mean. Presuming competence isn’t about ignoring student need in favor of wishful thinking, or pretending that no challenges exist, instead it allows students to show skills and abilities without the pre-judgment of our educational systems. Sometimes we need to get away from our predisposed notions in order to see what skills and abilities are present for kids, especially kids with autism. When students are treated with presumed competence, it means giving them a chance to teach us what their needs are and capitalize on the areas in which they thrive. People rise to their level of ability when allowed to do so, and children with autism are no exception.

Examples of Presumed Competence in Action

Presumed competence for kids with autism is based on the value of offering a similar classroom experience to all students. When students with autism are included and fully immersed in classroom experiences, their names are on the class list and assignments are given with the necessary tools to help each student succeed. This means that whether a student has a diagnosis or not, they are working to their full ability within the natural school environment. When children are presumed competent and invited to participate in classroom discussions and group work, it establishes an expectation for one’s capacity that can be met at whatever level is possible. This approach sets children’s abilities as the leading factor rather than an assumption of limited skill based on a diagnosis. Children who have an autism diagnosis and have the benefit of presumed competence are able to identify themselves as part of the student community, establish relationships with teachers and peers and boost their understanding of what is possible for them in the future. When schools embrace the philosophy, presumed competence embraces and brings out the best in kids, especially those who maybe on the spectrum.

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