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“Nothing about us without us:”The perspectives of autistic geoscientists on
inclusive instructional practices in geoscience education
Cole G. Kingsbury
, Elizabeth C. Sibert
, Zachary Killingback
, and Christopher L. Atchison
Department of Geology, University of Pretoria, Hatfield, 0028 Pretoria, Republic of South Africa;
Department of Earth and Planetary
Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138;
Society of Fellows, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138;
Department of Earth Science, Durham University, Durham DH1 3LE, United Kingdom;
School of Education and Department of Geology,
University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio 45221
Increasingly more students with disabilities, including autistic or otherwise neurodiverse students,
are studying for degrees in STEM field subjects. In recent years, there has been an increased effort
from the geoscience education community to make teaching more accessible and inclusive to
these students. However, much of the literature on this topic lacks the voice of the individuals
these practices aim to serve. This, combined with the medical, deficit-based understanding of aut-
ism typically presented in the literature, has resulted in the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes,
along with recommendations that may not actually serve as best practice. Here we present a
more accurate and holistic explanation of what autism actually is, using our lived experiences as
autistic geoscientists. We then outline a comprehensive framework for best supporting autistic
and neurodiverse geoscience students, with a focus on field-based learning. This framework
includes three pillars: (a) develop effective communication pathways with autistic students, (b) pre-
sume competence and include autistic students in the planning of their own accommodations,
and (c) employ strategies for expectation management. We also touch on the importance of rec-
ognizing the sensory processing aspects of autism spectrum conditions and suggest strategies for
minimizing these difficulties in a field environment. By centering autistic voices in the discussion
of how to support autistic geoscience students, we hope to change the narrative of inclusion for
this diverse, but significant population.
Received 06 December 2019
Revised 04 March 2020
Accepted 08 May 2020
Published online 05 June
Although increasing attention has been paid in the scientific
literature to improving access and inclusion of students and
practitioners with disabilities in Science, Technology,
Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education and
careers (e.g. Hartman, 2019), the geosciences have had the
lowest participation rates of individuals with disabilities
when compared to its STEM peers, (Locke, 2005; NSF
2017). While most efforts toward inclusion of students with
disabilities in geosciences have focused on physical (Gilley
et al., 2015), sensory (Hendricks et al., 2017), and other
non-apparent disabilities (De Paor et al., 2017; John &
Khan, 2018; Tucker & Horton, 2019), there has been
increasing effort in recent years to help geosciences attract
and retain neurodiverse participants - students diagnosed
with, for example: ADHD, Autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and
those with mental health challenges. These include initiatives
such as improving field mapping and geoscience education
accessibility for students with Autism Spectrum Conditions
(ASCs) as reported in Lang and Persico (2019), and Billing
and Feldman (2017), and increasing dialog in the literature
to recognize challenges and support of mental health in the
field (e.g. John & Khan, 2018; Tucker & Horton, 2019).
These efforts are an important step in the right direction of
inclusive planning and design across our discipline and along
pathways to geoscience careers. However, the dissemination
of scholarship regarding support for autistic students within
the geoscience education community appears to be lacking the
voice of the students and the population that they are trying
to serve. Likely due to the omission of autistic voices, these
recent papers - to varying degrees - have fallen flat in a key
way: they are grounded in harmful stereotypes about autism,
and give suggestions for ‘supporting’autistic students which
have the potential to harm more than help.
At some point in their career, all geoscience faculty mem-
bers will find themselves teaching autistic students whether
or not the students explicitly disclose such diagnoses. Recent
studies suggest that as much as 1.9% of the student popula-
tion of a large public university in the United States could
be autistic (White et al., 2011). If we consider this to be rep-
resentative, a typical introductory geoscience class of 150
CONTACT Cole G. Kingsbury TheCGKings317@gmail.com Department of Geology, University of Pretoria, Private Bag X20, Hatfield, Pretoria 0028, Republic
of South Africa.
These authors contributed equally to this work.
Supplemental data for this article can be accessed at https://doi.org/10.1080/10899995.2020.1768017.
ß2020 National Association of Geoscience Teachers
JOURNAL OF GEOSCIENCE EDUCATION
students would include 2-3 autistic students, and this likely
holds true for geoscience majors as well.
As autistic and neurodiverse geoscientists (first three
authors), we are excited to see greater attention being paid
toward educating the geoscience education community
about ways to accommodate our unique needs and improve
the accessibility and quality of education for all students.
We seek not to criticize the overall work and efforts to
improve geoscience educational opportunities for autistic
students, but rather to demonstrate how centering the voices
of autistic individuals, the population most affected by the
content of these recent efforts, would have made these pub-
lications both more useful and potentially less harmful to
autistic and neurodiverse students.
In addition to the insights from autistic geoscientists, we
include the broader perspective from the inclusive geo-
science education community (through the expertise of the
fourth author) to improve the support and education for
autistic geoscience students, both in direct response to
recent publications regarding autistic students in the field,
and by raising significant points that we feel have been
missed. There is a prominent theme within the disability
rights movement of “nothing about us without us”(Scotch,
2009), and we urge future contributions to the field of inclu-
sive geoscience education to consider more actively includ-
ing members of the population they are working with at all
phases of the research and dissemination process (e.g. Snow,
2013; Nicolaidis et al., 2011).
Throughout this paper, we provide resources which
respect the autistic experience, as well as provide a frame-
work for understanding autism beyond simply a spectrum
of communication disorders that makes people behave
oddly. There are many resources available which can pro-
vide information about autism while also respecting the
humanity and dignity of autistic individuals (e.g. the
Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and the Academic Autism
Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education
[AASPIRE]), which can improve the way in which educators
and students can work together to support neurodiverse stu-
dents at all levels.
Best practices for research impacting populations of peo-
ple with disabilities employ the Community-Based
Participatory Research (CBPR) model of inquiry (Nicolaidis
et al., 2011; Nicolaidis et al., 2019;Figure 1), and actively
include all of the stakeholders, especially those with disabil-
ities, throughout the research process. As part of the CBPR
model of inquiry as applied to autism, at least one autistic
person who has contributed to the research would normally
be offered co-authorship status. CBPR and similar models
have been successfully employed in research about medical
treatment (e.g. Snow, 2013; Iezzoni & Long-Bellil, 2012) and
to better support autitsic individuals, both within the med-
ical field (e.g. Raymaker et al., 2017) and in educational
community settings (e.g. Crompton et al., 2019). By follow-
ing the principles of CBPR, geoscience education researchers
can ensure that the individuals most impacted by the out-
comes of the study –people with disabilities and those from
other commonly underrepresented groups –are given a
voice and are deeply involved in every step of the research
cycle from design to dissemination (Figure 1; Nicolaidis
et al., 2011).
Here, we draw upon our diverse experiences as autistic
geoscientists, students, and researchers in accessible geo-
science education, to address common issues and solutions
Figure 1. The Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) process. Yellow boxes represent the life cycle of a typical research project and blue boxes represent
roles and tasks during different phases of the research project (Figure adapted from Nicolaidis et al., 2011).
2 C. G. KINGSBURY ET AL.
for better supporting autistic geoscience students. We
include direct responses to published literature and contrib-
ute some additional suggestions we feel will improve access,
inclusion, and outcomes for neurodiverse students entering
the geosciences. The central tenet of the disability rights
movement, “Nothing about us without us”, is a rallying cry
for access and inclusion centered around the needs of indi-
viduals with disabilities, and the process of collaboratively
making decisions that will ultimately impact them directly.
We hope that by adding our perspectives to this conversa-
tion, we will provide an improved (though hardly compre-
hensive) framework for increasing and improving access to
geoscience education for autistic students. We also encour-
age other researchers working in accessibility and education
to reach out and include members of the community they
are working on behalf of, in all stages of research, from con-
ception to publication.
What is autism really?
A common thread in recent papers discussing ways to sup-
port autistic university students, is an incomplete and funda-
mentally destructive definition of autism, usually citing
symptoms such as “obsessive desire for sameness”,
“repetitive behaviors”and “difficulty or failure to
communicate”with neurotypical people. This definition,
which focuses entirely on stereotyped observations of autis-
tic individuals, is commonly sourced from the Autism
Speaks website which, although the most well-known autism
charity, is not considered by most autistic people to be a
good source of information about autism (e.g. Sequenzia,
n.d.; Ne’eman, 2009; Nicolaidis, 2012). Their information
regarding autism is historically grounded in a ‘deficit-based
medical model’that was first defined by Laing (1971) and is
mired in stereotypes and misconceptions, containing infor-
mation that is unhelpful at best, and dehumanizing at worst.
The end result can lead to well-meaning research and inclu-
sion efforts that perpetuate ableism, and are ultimately
harmful to the targeted population they hope to support
(e.g. Billing & Feldman, 2017).
At its core, autism is an information processing condition
that results in different sensory experiences and ways of
thinking that depart from the “normal”experience (Autistic
Self Advocacy Network, n.d). As a result of these differences,
the way autistic individuals perceive and interact with the
world is, in many ways, structurally different from neurotyp-
ical interaction. A chief way this manifests is in how autistic
sensory systems process external stimuli, and the coping
mechanisms that are developed to deal with those stimuli.
In many circumstances, these coping mechanisms are devel-
oped despite great physical and mental cost to the autistic
individual, who is constantly consciously assessing many
pieces of sensory input across sight, sound, and touch, that
most people would not be aware of.
Recent research has demonstrated this heightened, multi-
sensory perception of one’s surroundings as Intense World
Theory of Autism. This type of extreme information input
and processing can lead to some of the stereotypical
symptoms of autism, including sensory sensitivity and sen-
sory seeking behaviors, auditory and language processing
challenges, repetitive behavior, and intense interests
(Markram & Markram, 2010). Imagine being able to hear
every conversation around you at the same volume, while
simultaneously hearing other background noises at an inten-
sified volume, being able to smell someone’s lunch from the
other end of the outcrop, feeling the rough texture of the
rock you’re sat on, the tag in the back of your t-shirt, and
being continuously dazzled by sunlight that no one else
thinks is especially bright. Now imagine you also have a dif-
ferent understanding of pragmatic language to everyone
around you, which takes you longer to decipher. Processing
all of that information in real time is exhausting.
Most autistic adults have spent their entire lives develop-
ing conscious ‘filters’and other coping mechanisms in order
to handle the volume of sensory input regularly experienced
that is not naturally sortable due in large measure to the
structure of the autistic brain. As a result, autistic individu-
als typically support a much higher baseline cognitive load
than their neurotypical peers, which can lead to mental
fatigue. Further, these filters are not always immediately able
to adapt to new information or new types of input, espe-
cially if there are other sources of stress already in the envir-
onment. This means that an autistic individual’s buffering
ability to handle novel situations or sensory input is lower
than most, making them more susceptible to overwhelm,
distress, and confusion, particularly in unfamiliar situations,
such as a field camp. This can present as real-time process-
ing delays, and can lead to meltdowns. Similar to when a
beaker is overfilled with water, resulting in water spillage,
meltdowns manifest when an autistic’s sensory systems
intake more external sensory stimuli than it can internally
process. This bombardment of sensory input results in a
“spillage”of emotions and actions that can manifest in a
variety of ways, including but not limited to: screaming, cry-
ing, kicking, and/or biting (e.g. National Autistic Society,
2016). Physical “lashing out”can be directed at one’s self,
rather than surrounding people. Lower buffering ability may
also lead to a shutdown, which is the complete inability to
process information and can manifest as the temporary
inability to verbally communicate, or even physically move
as the autistic person’s filters get overwhelmed.
There are two schools of thought in terms of how to han-
dle the interaction between autistic individuals and sur-
rounding external stimuli: the medical model of disability,
which focuses on the deficits exhibited by the individual,
and the social model of disability - the external, or environ-
mental factors which exacerbate those challenges (e.g.
Haegele & Hodge, 2016). The medical model suggests that
autistic individuals’sensory systems need to be “cured”
before the person in question can function or learn effect-
ively. However, following the social model of disability, with
appropriate supports, adequate information, and a general
understanding of these challenges, it is straightforward to
create an environment in which autistic students are able to
learn and contribute as effectively as any of their non-autis-
JOURNAL OF GEOSCIENCE EDUCATION, 1–9 (2020) 3
Strategies for supporting autistic
Develop effective communication pathways with
Barriers in social and collaborative interaction between aut-
istic and neurotypical peers is often a result of differences in
the way autistic individuals communicate rather than a lack
of communicative ability (Crompton et al., 2019). Reducing
communication barriers with autistic students is similar to
communicating with an international colleague who does
not share your language. Take appropriate steps to clarify
communication and acknowledge the potential for misun-
derstandings, rather than reducing the content level.
Clarifying communication and misunderstandings can go a
long way toward providing a positive and effective learning
experience not just for autistic students but for all students
in a class. The difference in communication styles between
non-Autistic and Autistic individuals is referred to as the
Double Empathy Problem (Milton, 2012). More recent work
has been completed in this area by the Diversity in Social
Intelligence Project at Edinburgh University (Crompton
et al., 2019), demonstrating that autistic-to-autistic informa-
tion sharing is just as effective as neurotypical-to-neurotypi-
cal, but that the autistic-neurotypical information sharing
pathway breaks down. This communicative discrepancy
extends to all forms of communication, including body lan-
guage. However, difficulty communicating does not mean
that content should be made simpler or the student should
be spoken down to.
Autistic individuals may have atypical body language
which can be misinterpreted as not paying attention, or dis-
interest. For example, an autistic student may avoid eye con-
tact, or look away entirely while listening to a lecture or
discussion. Rather than indicating disinterest, many autistic
individuals are better able to understand and process verbal
input when they are not looking at the speaker. For many
autistic individuals, acting out the appropriate body lan-
guage to indicate listening in a way that a neurotypical
instructor may understand, is exhausting and uncomfortable,
taking away mental energy that would otherwise be spent on
listening and comprehension of the lecture material.
Further, autism is often characterized by repetitive move-
ments that are commonly called ‘stimming’. Not all autistics
rock, flap and hum, but when autistics do, it doesn’t neces-
sarily mean distress; an autistic individual may increase
stimming as part of their information processing, or simply
as an expression of happiness (e.g. Bascom, 2011). While
autistic body language may seem foreign, allowing autistics
freedom of movement and leaving space for them to move
their bodies in ways that may seem counterintuitive, rather
than forcing them to sit still or actively suppress their need
for stimming behavior, greatly reduces the mental load, and
allows the autistic student to focus on learning.
Autistic individuals may not display emotions or respond
to certain situations in the socially expected manner. A
change in behavior, rather than a specific action, may signal
that the student is having a potential problem. For example,
many autistics experience shutdowns when overwhelmed.
Shutdowns are often described as a complete inability to
process information, verbally communicate, or sometimes
even physically move. For many autistic people however,
this is the final stage of a progressing shutdown. Initially,
verbal communication may not appear to have noticeably
declined, though the person may have reverted to known
phrases and responses that do not accurately represent what
they are feeling or thinking. This can be a particular chal-
lenge in field-based settings, where the situation is unfamil-
iar to the student, so developing a plan ahead of time with
the student for noticing signs of overwhelm and shutdown,
and outlining potential mitigation strategies is essential. For
example, a student, may feel increasingly overwhelmed in a
crowded environment around an outcrop, and in trying to
move away, shut down completely in a potentially danger-
ous situation (e.g. mid-stream crossing). Learning to recog-
nize non-typical, but common indications of autistic distress
can help mitigate such situations before they occur, as can
developing contingency plans or locations for a student to
‘take a break’from an overwhelming situation in a safe
manner. To this end, we suggest instructors in collaboration
with the autistic student, identify safe and alternative
options to employ in the event of shutdowns in the days
leading up to field course departure.
Many autistic individuals have challenges with processing
verbal communication in real-time. Communication can be
improved by using plain language, avoiding sarcasm or idi-
oms, asking one question at a time, being deliberate about
the types of questions (yes or no vs. open-ended) posed, and
allowing additional time for students to process and formu-
late a response. Some autistic students may communicate
part- or full-time using augmentative and alternative com-
munication (AAC) devices (Zisk & Dalton, 2019). This can
take the form of a letter-board for spelling, typing on their
phone, or other text- or picture-based communication sys-
tems. While these systems can be slower than the natural
pace of a verbal conversation, allowing students the time
and space to process and respond to questions, and to make
observations, demonstrates respect for their efforts to com-
municate, and improves learning outcomes for the stu-
Presume competence: Autistic individuals are experts in
their autistic existence
We encourage professors and university educators to
acknowledge and respect autistic intelligence and expertise,
recognizing that autistic university students are young adults
going through the same developmental stages as their neuro-
typical peers. While much of the literature (e.g. Elias &
White, 2018; Lang & Persico, 2019) suggests working with
the autistic university student’s support team, disability serv-
ices, and even their family, to develop appropriate supports,
it is of paramount importance to remember that autistic
individuals are experts in their own lives, and we encourage
inclusion of autistic students in all planning phases for their
accommodations. It is also important to bear in mind that
4 C. G. KINGSBURY ET AL.
what works for one autistic person may be detrimental to
another - always ask whether an accommodation or modifi-
cation would be helpful, and be willing to take suggestions,
even if such supports are atypical. For example, one of the
authors regularly carries a soft blanket to feel, not only as a
way to lessen the urge to bite and mutilate their fingers but
also as a way to help maintain focus and grounding during
intellectually demanding tasks such as writing. In addition,
the same author also wears a pressure vest on certain occa-
sions to help with grounding, focus and to greatly lessen the
prospect of shutdowns. The pressure vest works by assisting
with the regulation of sensory input. Transporting rock sam-
ples in a backpack with tightened shoulder-, chest-, and hip-
straps can offer similar benefits to the pressure vest on field
traverses while the pressure vest can be used in camp when
doing evening collaborative activities. While an external sup-
port team may have good ideas for improving access and
accommodations for an autistic student, and can be included
in those conversations, the main driver of such conversa-
tions should be the autistic individual as the expert.
Aim to meet with students several times well in advance
of any planned trips and ask them about their personal
communication needs. In some students, this can, from time
to time, include speech being limited or non-existent.
Students that experience non-verbal periods will typically
have developed other ways of communicating such as
through communication cards, a whiteboard, or AAC apps
on their phone. Also be aware that some autistics may have
a very specific understanding of certain words or phrases,
regardless of the context in which they are used. For
example, some individuals may greatly struggle to respond
to the question, “are you okay?”:
I understand it to mean, “at this precise moment in time, what is
your emotional state?”If a teacher uses “are you okay?”to check
understanding of the work, I may think “I’m fairly happy right
now, so yes”. The satisfied teacher then walks off and I get no
help with the work I was struggling with. –Z, Autistic
We recommend establishing a predetermined method of
“checking in”with an autistic student when in the field. For
some students, a set of self-assessment questions (e.g. “have
I eaten food recently?”and “what are two things that I think
I understand and two things I do not understand about this
assignment?”) may help to guide their understanding in the
field. Further, many autistic students have learned from a
young age that being “pulled aside”equates to being repri-
manded for a behavior that was likely out of their control.
These negative associations certain autistic individuals have
with being pulled aside makes this form of “checking in”
very anxiety provoking. Establishing a routine for checking
in with an autistic student prior to the beginning of a field
trip, can help to alleviate these anxieties, and improve com-
munication and learning in the field.
Employ strategies for expectation management
A common misconception is that autistic people have an
“obsessive desire for sameness”and an “inability to handle
change”(Kanner, 1943; Wing, 1988). While it is true that
many Autistic people benefit from the structure of having a
constant routine, and may dislike deviating from that rou-
tine, it is because changes and novel situations can effect-
ively “clog”the mental filters meant to deal with sensory
input, which can greatly reduce the amount of information
that can be processed in real-time. This stereotyped view of
autism inhibits opportunities for students to participate in
new learning experiences. When working with autistic stu-
dents, it is far more helpful to create “predictability”than
“sameness”, as predictability helps to establish a framework
of expectations for the student to work within. This
“expectation management”framework can be applied to
scheduling, activities, food, behavior, and assignments, and
allows for increased flexibility while reducing stress.
Participating in fieldwork and field trips is a capstone
experience of nearly all geoscience educational programs.
While students are well-practiced at the situations presented
by classroom instruction, leaving this familiar environment
for the unpredictability of studying in the field can be a
daunting and overwhelming experience. New situations, par-
ticularly field-based ones, often include significant new sen-
sory stimuli, as well as new social rules and safety
guidelines, many of which may seem arbitrary to students
(see Electronic Supplementary Material for more details).
Providing curricular context to the tasks and concepts
involved in fieldwork or a field trip prior to the trip itself, is
particularly helpful in managing expectations in the field.
While all students benefit from having field techniques
introduced as curricular components in prerequisite courses,
rather than for the first time during a large trip, having field
techniques reinforced well before departure makes the tran-
sition into the field easier for neurodivergent students.
Practicing these techniques in a more controlled or lower-
stakes setting prior to departure (Lang & Persico, 2019)
allows autistic students the opportunity to practice managing
the non-educational variables of fieldwork, such as wearing
unfamiliar field-appropriate clothing or sun protection,
before it is necessary to use the practical academic skills on
a larger trip or project, and allows the students to better
understand the tasks asked of them in the field.
One of the best ways to support autistic students in the
field is to be aware of the types of situations or stimuli that
may be challenging. While the exact challenges will vary
from individual to individual, providing a framework of
expectations prior to a trip can go a long way toward pri-
ming students for success in the field. For example, many
autistic people are very sensitive to the textures and tastes of
food, making it difficult or impossible to “go with the flow”
and eat whatever food is provided. Autistic people, in par-
ticular, may find that it is much easier to tolerate ‘hunger’
than it is to tolerate the sensory input of certain foods,
which can lead to restricting intake during field trips and
camps. Sharing the meal plans ahead of time, and planning
flexible “buffet-style”dishes gives students the opportunity
to determine how and what kind of food they need bring to
supplement the group’s food, as well as a sense of what to
expect at mealtimes. A similar framework of expectation
JOURNAL OF GEOSCIENCE EDUCATION, 1–9 (2020) 5
management can be built around appropriate field gear and
clothes. Take the time to discuss the weather of the field
location, as well as the types of appropriate clothes, layers,
shoes, and protective gear well before the trip and allow
ample time for students to acclimate to and practice with
any new clothing or gear they may need. Additionally, share
information about taking care of bathroom needs and avail-
ability in the field prior to the trip (Greene et al., 2019)so
that students can prepare and bring appropriate supplies
While in the field, autistic individuals may experience
considerable visual and/or auditory processing challenges
that are not present in the classroom, such as bright sun-
light, complex scenery, wind, and unfamiliar noises. This
sensory overload can make it difficult for an autistic person
to hear or take in information in the field, and in extreme
cases, can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns. While these
stimuli are unavoidable in the field, breaking up lectures
into shorter segments, including additional information in a
printed field guide, and, where possible, choosing locations
with minimal distractions for group discussions, can help
improve learning outcomes. Additionally, having a plan in
place for a student to take breaks from the group setting to
recover from overstimulation can improve overall comfort
and safety in the field. Some students may also benefit from
having a “buddy”who they can check in with directly about
about course content and logistics if they are feeling lost.
We draw attention to various potential overstimulation
scenarios like we describe in this paragraph, the previous
paragraph and possible ways of managing these sensory
overstimulations in our Electronic Supplementary Material.
A common “solution”for supporting an autistic student
is establishing a daily schedule. Such schedules, when con-
structed appropriately, provide significant reductions in anx-
iety, and can support a student’s executive functioning.
However, as field trips rarely go according to plan, con-
structing a rigid schedule may cause more harm than good.
For example, if a 30-minute field stop expands to a 2-hour
stop, a student who has been told “we’ll spend 30 minutes
here”, may have mentally transitioned out of the stop after
30 minutes, expecting to be moving on. They may then be
experiencing significant anxiety as the schedule they were
told is now messed up. Alternatively, stating “this stop has
these three goals, and we expect to be here for somewhere
between 30 and 60 minutes, though it could be longer, and
we’ll see how everyone is doing before we decide to move to
our next stop”tells the student what to focus on. In add-
ition, the alternative statement we offer above gives a frame-
work for how scheduling works, and provides information
about what the next steps will be, all of which can improve
the student’s ability to engage with the course content,
rather than worry about the schedule. Further, scheduling
Figure 2. An example planner used at base and in the field by an autistic student on a week-long field course. The checklists serve as prompts for daily medication,
hygiene and nutrition tasks, and help with executive functioning, whilst the spaces to fill in enable the student to create a visual timetable for the day - including
what tasks are expected of them at particular localities. By laminating the planner, it can be used as a dry-wipe board, allowing for flexibility and changes to
6 C. G. KINGSBURY ET AL.
and discussing mealtimes and strategies, as well as bathroom
breaks and other nonacademic aspects of life in the field can
reduce unknown variables, and help students focus more on
the tasks at hand.
Some autistic students may already have coping strategies
in place to try and manage their anxieties surrounding pre-
dictability and routine. For example, the dry-wipe planner
in Figure 2 provides a daily framework for daily field-based
activities but also includes tasks for helping with executive
functioning, placing priority reminders on specific hygiene
and nutrition needs which may otherwise be forgotten dur-
ing a major change in routine (e.g. Table 1). Such strategies
can be encouraged and introduced as a possible idea to stu-
dents that don’t already have such coping strategies in place.
This should be done well in advance of a field trip so that
the strategies can be tried and tested beforehand, and always
utilized in addition to the other suggestions made in this
paper, not instead of them.
To help students better understand and plan for how
daily life works on a field trip or field course, we recom-
mend sharing past field trip photos and sample schedules to
help manage expectations prior to trips. This can be done
by creating a dedicated webpage within the departmental
online presence. Photos of people working at the field sites
should focus not only on the science aspect of trip (i.e. two
people measuring a stratigraphic section) but also provide
context for non-science daily life on the field course and
include students preparing and eating meals, photos of
sleeping quarters, and recreational activities. Linking to host-
ing services such as Flickr allows for larger numbers of pho-
tographs. Further, posting the course syllabi on the website
well in advance (>1 month) of the start of major field
courses serve as a way for course policies and regulations to
be known to students ahead of time. Further, making the
document publicly available allows future students to under-
stand what field experiences are like socially and operation-
ally. Including information such as a generalized schedule of
activities detailing a typical day in the field also helps illus-
trate a typical day’s events (for an example, see Table 2).
This allows the students to observe the setting and get an
understanding of the social and environmental structure of
the trip, pack appropriate down-time activities and clothing,
and better prepare for the daily activities during the trip.
Useful community resources
In addition to employing best practices for universal design
in class planning (Silver et al., 1998; Rose & Meyer, 2002),
we encourage those currently, or planning to expand their
work to focus on issues of access and inclusion in teaching,
learning, and research activities across the geosciences and
beyond to become familiar with the growing network of
The Supporting and Advancing Geoscience Education at
Two Year Colleges (SAGE 2YC) project resources supported
the implementation of “high-impact, evidence-based instruc-
tional and co-curricular practices …that will lead to
improved STEM learning, broadened participation, and a
more robust STEM workforce”(SAGE 2YC., 2019).
Similarly, the International Association for Geoscience
Diversity (the IAGD), and their formal UK Chapter spon-
sored by the Geological Society of London, Diversity in the
Geosciences (DiG-UK), is a growing network of geoscience
students, instructors, and practitioners, with and without
disabilities, working to develop communities of resources
and instructional best practices to support the entire geo-
Recent geoscience education research is working to
advance instructional inclusion and address cultural stereo-
types and biases that exacerbate exclusionary practices across
the discipline, most notably associated with the rigors of
field-focused activities (e.g. Atchison et al., 2019; Atchison &
Gilley, 2015; Carabajal et al., 2017; Feig et al., 2019; Gilley
et al., 2015; Stokes et al., 2019). The benefits of integrating
inclusive pedagogical practices are advancing through
research that focuses on the entire student learning commu-
nity (Atchison et al., 2019; Atchison & Carnahan, 2018).
Geoscience education scholars are advocating for universally
and inclusively-designed programs to bring out the strengths
and abilities of all students.
We also encourage researchers to look at resources pro-
vided by autistic-run organizations and neurodiverse indi-
viduals, to learn more about autism, the autistic experience,
and how they may be able to better support autistic individ-
uals. For example, the Autism Women’s Network, the
Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, and the Thinking Person’s
Guide to Autism are all free, online resources which provide
Table 1. Sample schedule showing general plan of a typical day in field mapping camp.
7:30 AM - 8:00 AM Wake up, shower, prepare pack and materials for field work
8:00 AM - 8:30 AM Breakfast
8:30 AM - 9:00 AM Morning discussion
9:00 AM - 5:00 PM Activity: Field Mapping - Lunch and snacks will be determined based on pre-set times
agreed to immediately following morning discussion.
Location: Vredefort Dome, North West Province, South Africa
Bathrooms: There are no bathrooms on field traverse, but are available in camp mornings
prior to departure and evenings after arriving back in camp.
Daily Goals: Find and map the contacts between major lithological units in the map area.
5:00 PM - 6:00 PM Personal time –suggest showering.
6:00 PM - 7:00 PM Dinner
7:00 PM - 8:00 PM Group work, evening discussion
8:00 PM - 10:00PM Personal time
10:00 PM Suggested bedtime
JOURNAL OF GEOSCIENCE EDUCATION, 1–9 (2020) 7
significant resources for those aiming to better understand
and support autistic individuals. These sites, as well as
others, provide large directories of blogs and essays by autis-
tic adults, including published research scholars, which pro-
vide further insights into the autistic experience. Recent
publications, including the book NeuroTribes by Steve
Silberman, (Silberman, 2015) go farther in addressing the
history, science, and development of our understanding of
Autism and neurodiversity.
As increased attention is paid toward creating more inclu-
sive environments in which to train the next generation of
geoscientists, it is paramount to understand and involve
those populations in the theoretical and practical efforts to
better support these students along their paths toward a geo-
science education. Here, we have drawn on our personal
experiences as autistic geoscientists and an inclusive geo-
science education researcher, to address a gap evident in the
academic discourse that surround supporting autistic stu-
dents in geoscience educational programs: the voice of the
autistic individuals themselves. While by no means compre-
hensive, we provide context for how autism can impact indi-
viduals with a focus on geoscience education situations, give
tangible examples of challenges faced by autistic students,
and suggest strategies for mitigating those challenges that
maintain academic rigor while achieving the desired learning
outcomes for all students. While autism is often construed
as a social interaction disorder, the associated sensory proc-
essing difficulties are often the root of challenges faced by
autistic students. Working with individuals to establish
effective modes of communication and help manage expect-
ations, can go a long way toward improving the academic
experience for autistic geoscience students. As more diverse
populations of students gain access to a university-level edu-
cation, it is important to employ a community-based partici-
patory research paradigm to research efforts about those
populations. We encourage future efforts in this area of
improved access and inclusion of students with disabilities
in geosciences, to ensure that those involved have a voice in
these projects, from conceptual project design to the final
products. With flexibility, creativity, and planning, neurodi-
verse students can thrive in geoscience programs. Including
autistic voices in the process, can provide invaluable insights
into understanding their unique needs and building effective
frameworks to best support those students throughout their
geoscience education career.
The authors thank Kit Albrecht, Aiyana Bailin, and Jesse Weinstein for
their invaluable comments on a draft version of this manuscript. We
also gratefully acknowledge the helpful and positive feedback of Editor
in Chief Eric Riggs, and the constructive feedback we received from
two anonymous reviewers that improved the content and presentation
of this commentary contribution.
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