Lifelong Learning in Autism: A Life History of an Autistic Woman’s Learning Journey in Formal and Informal Learning Contexts

Thursday, May 11, 2017: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
T. W. Henderson, Giant Steps Montreal, Montreal, QC, Canada
Background:  Learning in autism remains underexplored in the literature and little is known about the lifelong learning experiences of adults on the spectrum or ways in which adult education can be inclusively designed to support and promote success. What we do know about learning in autism is that learning is atypical. Additionally, there is also resistance to learning in typical ways from typical approaches and therefore, a non-normocentric approach to evaluating and teaching autistic people is recommended. As incidence rates of autism diagnosis increase across society, more adults diagnosed with ASDs are enrolled in adult education. As such, this study seeks to richly describe the lived experience of one adult learner with autism and discover themes that suggest directions for autism-inclusive adult education design.

Objectives:  The purpose of this study is to understand what lifelong learning looks like for an individual with autism. By exploring the life story of one elderly autistic woman, the barriers and facilitators to learning across the lifespan of an individual with ASD are revealed. Four sub-questions are examined: 1. How is learning for people with autism parallel to, different from, and complementary to non-autistic learning? 2. How does formal and informal learning occur? 3. What does this tell us about the transformative potential of self-directed learning for adults with autism? 4. What are some of the facilitators and barriers to learning?

Methods:  The study used a qualitative life-history methodolgy. The life-history was established through a series of narrative interviews. The narratives collected and composed in this study were analysed using thematic analysis.

Results:  This study examines the life history of a 72-year-old Deaf woman with an autism. By analysing her life experiences and narrative, questions of identity- and ability-diversity are highlighted and barriers and facilitators to learning and inclusion are discovered. The participant's story highlights the complex interrelationship between learning, identity, neurodiversity, legitimacy and agency, and the mediating roles of inclusion and accessibility. The findings contribute to developing a deeper understanding of the meaning and importance of formal and informal learning in the life of a person with autism and indicate ways in which the learning of adults with ASDs can be supported and enhanced.

Conclusions:  Learning for the participant, across her lifespan, can be characterized as profoundly atypical from both a developmental and educational perspective. Her learning trajectory does not map easily onto a non-autistic learning history. Her story is rich from an educational biography perspective, giving voice to an exceptional person’s life experience within a specific historical context. Her story strongly suggests the importance of using a non-normocentric approach that appreciates the unique and complimentary strengths, skills, and needs of adult learners on the autism spectrum. Her descriptions of learning demonstrate that she learns from often atypical types and sources of information and has a preference for self-education. Her story also powerfully highlights the importance of self-determination and the transformative potential of self-direction for learners like her and emphasizes the potential impact of leveraging technology to support learning, communication, engagement and autonomy.