Caring for those in Need

Teaching With No Labels: An Agile Approach to ASD

 The first request that I will make of you, the reader, is to pay attention to what happened inside you when you read the word autism. Did you, perhaps, unconsciously stiffen as if your mind and body were preparing for stress? Did you find yourself quickly scanning your memory about a student you have had who was autistic-recalling your experiences, maybe struggles, in teaching that child? Maybe you have a friend who is the parent of a child on the spectrum or you are a parent of a child who has been given this label. So, reflect for a moment.

BY Gerard Costa, Ph.D., DIR-C®, IMHM- C® | April 2022 | Category: Autism Awareness

Teaching With No Labels: An Agile Approach to ASD

My second request. a more difficult one after years of teaching or parenting is this: forget the label! While it has value in research, it tells you almost nothing of real importance about who this child is or how you might help this child to be calm and engaged, relate, communicate, and learn. The reason for this is both simple and complex.

To date, much of the field of educational and clinical interventions has focused on emphasizing behavioral change and compliance with outside requirements. This is a practice that is founded on the very meaningful and long history of science in learning theory. We are now beginning to discover learning stemming from multidisciplinary sciences that is informing us about the neurobiological underpinnings of our ability to feel, think, and behave as social, learning beings. When we consider this learning, we can see the underlying neurobiological forces that lead to observable difficulties in regulation, engagement, communicating, and learning.

Related to this is our learning about the way the brain operates: the Triune Brain with the upper cortex (the “thinking” brain), the middle limbic system (the social processing brain that activates when we feel stress), and the lower reptilian brain that monitors and sustains our biological functions (the autonomic brain) (Maclean. 1990). The limbic and reptilian brains constitute our survival brain – and when stress occurs, the survival brain can disable the thinking brain (e.g., Siegel. 2010). In addi­tion, the survival brain – including the social processing limbic system – is “online,” meaning it is very active and sensitive earlier in life than the thinking brain and remains the first line of processing throughout our lives.

Additionally, we have right- and left-brain hemispheres, and while the left hemisphere is considered the more logical/verbal side, the right hemisphere is more involved in emotions, creativity, and spatial thinking. This right side – more attuned to affect, gestures, interpersonal space, and relatedness – is also online before the left (Siegel & Bryson, 2012).

This means that the lower brain systems and right brain, which are very sensitive to pre-verbal and non-verbal cues, are what we humans first use to interpret the world and others. (Porges 2011, 2015) in fact proposed the Polyvagal Theory suggesting that the very first thing a child needs to determine is safety and that it is largely determined in children and adults by the affect, gestures, and voices of the other. In a moment, we will see why this is important for all humans, but especially for children (and adults) with autism-and you as their teacher. 

What does this all mean to you as a teacher of a child with autism, or for any child whose unique individual differences (brain differences) render them less available for regulation and learning?

  • Teach With the Brain In Mind

The first lesson is that what you witness in a child’s behaviour is not a behavior problem to be fixed or changed (although the behaviours can be very challenging to you as a teacher). Instead, the behaviours are related to differences in the way in which the brain functions and processes relationships and the environment. So, as Siegel and Hartzell (2014) suggest for parenting, teach with the “brain in mind”!

  • Co-regulate

The second lesson is that children with autism have differences in brain systems that first and foremost can make it difficult for them to be calm and alert-those necessary developmental capacities for learning. These are felt by the child (and in you) as stressors. Your knowledge and experience can co-regulate with your students when stress renders them less present for engagement and learning.

  • Be Agile

The third lesson is that children must feel safe, and the first line of communicating our safety and support of a child’s engagement and learning is our affect and gestures. I believe that the brain systems in autism often make a child feel less safe. I have developed a simple acronym to help you pay attention to yourself and how you "are" with a child, especially a child with autism. The acronym is AGILE:


This is what a child experiences first and most! Your demeanor and overall emotional state are what the child will experience.


Modulate and be attuned in your facial expressions, hands, movement, posture, and pacing. Carefully manage your interpersonal space.


Modulate the tone of your voice, as this conveys affect and social / emotional meaning. Calm, slower voices convey safety and regulation.


(Wait): Wait and allow the child time to “take you in.


Before you continue, be sure you have engaged the child!

  • Take the Challenge

The fourth lesson is for all of us to challenge our thinking about what autism means – personally, as members of the education community, and as members of the larger society. Consider the propositions on the next page in light of our current practices and what we can do as educators to make these propositions a reality in our classrooms and schools. 

What we now know Is that individuals with autism have neurobiological differences that render them less available for processing information (e.g., Khan et al., 2015) for human engagement and learning-and that such individuals have brain systems that have difficulty managing their internal and external stressors. Herein lies the enormous value and contribution that Self-Reg serves in the sciences of human development, and in particular for autism.

Going back to the lower brain and right/left hemispheres, a growing body of literature in the neurosciences suggests that the brains of individuals with autism often do not “work together” and that some areas of the brain are overconnected – meaning that their brain systems are overly active – and that other areas of the brain are underconnected and not working together to support attention, regulation, and engagement (e.g., Khan et al., 2015: Heinsfeld, Franco, Craddock, Buchweitz, & Meneguzzi, 2018). Khan et al. (2015), for example, found that the sensory-motor system is overconnected at the expense of the higher-brain cognition systems. 

Consider these propositions in light of our current practices and what we can do as educators to make these propositions a reality in our classrooms and schools.

1. Autism has ALWAYS existed in the human experience!

2. Naming a “disorder” changes the social, cultural, economic, and political views and responses, and creates an “othering” and power imbalance.

3. The meaning of autism varies by culture and society and changes over time within and among cultures.

4. The term autism may have value in as much as it helps in understanding and helping those whose individual differences need to be supported – and whose suffering must be relieved.

5. The term autistic may have value as a tribal identity (Silberman, 2016).

6. Autism, as a way of being in a neurodiverse community, must be understood beyond disability and inability/deficits but as allowing unique gifts and strengths.

7. In the disability rights movement – “Nothing about us without us!” – a social and political voice exists that demands respect, inclusion, and full participation.

8. As is the case with all humans, there is a range of capacities and abilities, in the spectrum among individuals with autism. This means that we must honour the different ways in which those with autism live, learn, and communicate.

9. For any student, and that includes students with autism, we cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, relating, and communicating. Employ a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) view.

10. Presume COMPETENCY. This was a common reminder In the work of child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan (e.g., Greenspan, Wieder, & Simons, 1998; Greenspan & Wieder, 2006).

11. Embrace a “Competence-Moderator- Performance” framework. Competencies in all of us can exist, but internal and external variables can moderate their manifestation in our performance.

12. Science must inform us about the underlying biological/ constitutional forces that are at work in supporting regulation, engagement. relating, communication, and thinking.

13. Support, education, and intervention must honor unique individual differences, and the goal must be to promote full human development.

14. Research into the nature of autism and ways to support individuals on the spectrum must embrace multidisciplinary sciences and the larger ecological context and embodiment implications. Searching for genetic markers alone is insufficient.

15. The phenomenological experience of autism spectrum disorder reflects the consequences of a human body-and associated mental and emotional processes-associated with heightened levels of stress and dysregulation. This is an important area to help reduce suffering and enhance regulation, engagement, reciprocity, and higher forms of human development. 

So, the word autism resides within you. Our challenge to you is to reflect on what it means based on current knowledge and science. The Self-Reg approach helps us to create a respectful, just approach to human development. The Self-Reg Framework chal­lenges you to reframe what you see by wondering about what might be happening inside the student; to reframe what you first view as misbehavior by seeing the same behavior as the result of stress. By reframing in this way, you as a teacher can take an important step in promoting the development of your students – helping them to become physiologically, emotionally, and intellectually available for higher-level thinking.

Be “AGILE;” be questioning, be calm, and enjoy! 


Costa, G. (2020).  Expert voice: On Autism. In, Shanker, S. and Hopkins, S. Self-Reg for Schools: A Handbook for Educators.  Pearson Canada: North York, Ontario, Canada.  58-61. 


Heinsfeld, A. S., Franco, A. R., Craddock, R. C., Buchweitz, A., & Meneguzzi, F. (2018). Identification of autism spectrum disorder using deep learning and the ABIDE dataset. NeuroImage: Clinical, 17, 16–23.

Khan, A. J., Nair, A., Keown, C. L., Datko, M. C., Lincoln, A. J., & Müller, R.-A. (2015). Cerebro-cerebellar resting-state functional connectivity in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Biological Psychiatry, 78(9), 625–634. https://doi. org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.03.024

MacLean, P. D. (1990). The triune brain in evolution: Role in paleocerebral functions. New York, NY: Plenum.

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York, NY: Norton.

Porges, S. W. (2015). Making the world safe for our children: Down-regulating defence and up-regulating social engagement to “optimise” the human experience. Children Australia, 40(2), 114–123.

Siegel, D.J. (2010).  Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam Books.

Siegel, D.J and Hartzell, M. (2014).  Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. New York: Penguin Group. 


Gerard Costa served as the founding director of the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental and a Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Montclair State University.   He is a member of the faculty of the Infant and Early Childhood Development (IECD) Ph.D. program at Fielding University (formerly the ICDL Graduate School). He serves as a trustee and President of the Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning, founded by Drs. Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder, and has served as a consultant to ZERO TO THREE for the past 20+ years. He is one of the first 16 “Expert Faculty” selected by ZERO TO THREE in the new DC: 0-5 (2016) Classification system. He sits on several state and non-profit boards and was appointed by two New Jersey Governors to serve on the New Jersey Council for Young Children, where he headed the Infancy and Early Childhood Mental Health committee. He received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Temple University and was one of the first 16 recipients of the DIR certificate by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Dr. Serena Wieder. He is a trained faculty member in the Brazelton Touchpoints Model and holds a “Self-Reg” Certificate from the MEHRIT Center in Canada, led by Dr. Stuart Shanker. He holds an endorsement as an Infant Mental Health Clinical Mentor, through the New Jersey Association for Infant Mental Health and Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health. He led a 4-year Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health systems development project in partnership with Child Development Services of Wyoming and the Wyoming Developmental Disabilities Division and is the principal author of a 15 module Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health training curriculum. He led a multi-year training and consultation project with 25 Infant Mental Health mentors with South Dakota Voices for Children, and he led a strategic planning initiative with the Missouri Association for Infant Mental Health-Early Childhood. He has presented keynotes, workshops and trainings at hundreds of events and programs. Since 2018 he serves as the Coordinator of the Northeast Regional Terrorism and Disaster Coalition. He served as the Principal Investigator of the New Jersey Inclusive Education Technical Assistance (NJIETA) project, an $8 Million, 5-½  year project advancing full inclusion in New Jersey Public Schools. He is past president of the NJ Association for Infant Mental Health, and is President of the Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning (ICDL). Dr. Costa has been honored with numerous awards including the Christian Kjeldsen Champion for Children Award by the NJ Child Care Advisory Council, the Lucille Weistuch Early Childhood Special Education Award, by the New Jersey Division for Early Childhood (NJDEC), and the Golden Bell Leadership Award, by the New Jersey Mental Health Association. He has conducted presentations and trainings in 31 states and 11 countries, and he is the recipient of numerous awards. He is a NJ licensed psychologist and is the author of articles and book chapters on autism, infant mental health and professional formation. He is the 2021 recipient of the Weatherston Leadership in Infant Mental Health Award, from the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health.  

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