Fixed vs. Growth Mindset: Understanding Autism

Today one in sixty-eight children is born with a form of autism. Advancements in treatment, communication strategies, activism to increase awareness and acceptance of autism, and scientific research have helped educate the public, as well as medical and educational professionals alike about autism. Despite greater autism awareness, some educators, including seasoned administrators, still don’t understand autism.

My friend K. who has a child with autism said that there are two types of people in this world: people who “get” autism and people who still don’t. (Please note: she does not mean people who catch autism. She means people who understand, empathize, and take steps to accept people on the spectrum).

Among those who don’t understand autism there are two subtypes: people with a fixed, prideful mindset who think that they “get” it. There are also humble people with a growth mindset who don’t “get” it, yet they openly admit it and are willing to learn, like psychologist Carol Dweck’s Mindsetunderstand autism.

Fixed Mindset
understanding autismK. states, “People who don’t “get” autism see kids with autism as behavior problems. People who don’t ‘get’ autism think more discipline would take care of ‘the problem.’ People who don’t ‘get’ autism think it is a parenting issue. People who don’t ‘get’ autism have not read a single book out of the hundreds available on the subject.

These people, often well-meaning educators, blame the parents, oftentimes the mother, for their child’s struggles with autism. They escalate kiddos with autism into TFM (total freakout mode– a very scientific term)- and mete out harsh, antiquated punishments to kiddos on the spectrum instead of using research-based de-escalation and crisis intervention strategies, such as Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI)understand autism.

Such a toxic, fixed mindset and resulting actions harm students with autism. It can cost a rock-brained authoritarian educator his or her job. Worse yet, it could bring on a lawsuit for breaking federal and state laws protecting students with disabilities right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE)!

Growth Mindset
Fortunately, most educators today don’t possess such a fixed mindset.  They don’t “get” it and are open to learning more about autism- that’s a growth mindset.  An accomplished teachers told me point blank that she didn’t “get” autism.

She asked me, the parents, and other professionals for input and suggestions for working with kiddos on the spectrum. When I provided her with instructional strategies and approaches for working with students with autism, she would actually use them! She also communicated frequently with the parents, realized that she needed to differentiate instruction more than unusual and provided the student with advocacy strategies. She held students on the spectrum accountable to high, doable standards AND provided them with the accommodations they needed to succeed. This teacher’s growth mindset allowed her to morph this year into someone who does “get” autism.

People who “get” autism can think outside of the box. People who ‘get’ autism try things another way. People who ‘get’ autism are accepting. People who ‘get’ autism are flexible, patient, and caring,” added K.

If you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism.If you don’t “get” autism, that’s okay. Just admit it. That’s the first step. Autism can be complex- as speech language pathologist Michelle Garcia Winner, author of Socially Curious and Curiously Social: A Social Thinking Guidebook for Bright Teens and Young Adultsunderstand autism, has said, “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.”

An Open Mind
Do you have a fixed or growth mindset?Want to understand autism better? Consider talking to the students’ special education teacher with an open mind. The speech language pathologist, school counselor, or school psychologist could likely also provide you with helpful input. Get to know students with autism. Adults with autism can also provide you with unique insights about the childhood autism. They are the experts on the autism experience!

If every time you speak to the student it seems that s/he spins out of control, consider learning de-escalation skills, or looking at what your own behavior is doing to provoke the student. Go to workshops on autism, read books like The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndromeunderstand autism or School Success for Kids With Asperger’s Syndrome: A Practical Guide for Parents and Teachersunderstand autism. Check out and check out resources from reputable sites like or When you admit you that you’d like to understand autism better to other professionals, it’s likely that they would be delighted to share their own expertise and resources with you.

I still have a lot to learn about autism- even though I’ve worked with students on the spectrum for a few years now. In fact, the more I learn about anything, the more I realize I have to learn! I pray that I can keep a fresh growth mindset for years to come as I journey from new administrator to veteran principal.


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