|[Source: Autism Awareness Centre inc.]|
Leslie Broun, M.Ed.
As the new school year begins, many parents of students who have Autism Spectrum Disorders are filled with trepidation as they know this involves establishing a relationship with their child’s new teacher, as well as the development of routines of communication and interaction. Many parents worry about how much the teacher knows about Autism Spectrum Disorders. They wonder: How much training have they had? Will the teacher be patient? Will he or she like my child? Will everyone get along and agree on goals and expectations?
With greater public awareness and a deliberate effort to provide teachers and paraprofessionals with information and training, schools and teachers are increasingly better able to work effectively with students who have ASD. Nevertheless, teachers, too, worry how they are going to create a successful year for all of their students. Classrooms today may be comprised of many students who have learning differences or physical disabilities. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a regular classroom teacher to be an expert in all areas of disability. It may be that the teacher is in the process of learning about more than one area of disability, as well as dealing with students who live in poverty or other difficult situations.
The following simple guidelines for parents and teachers can establish a solid foundation for building a positive relationship. When home and school work together, the results can only be positive.
The Knowledge Base
It is incumbent upon you to learn as much as possible about your child’s disorder. While you live with the ramifications and expressions of the disorder, the ability to cope and to understand your child will be significantly influenced by your knowledge base. If you have found articles or books that have been particularly useful to you, share them with your child’s instructors. It may also be useful to alert the teacher and school principal to conferences or other professional development opportunities. Sometimes (although not always) there is funding available that can enable the teacher to attend.
Having a student who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder in your class will be a wonderful learning experience. When you know that you have a student with ASD coming to your class, in preparation, learn as much as you can about the disorder. This may include professional visits to other teachers who work with students who have ASD, as well as accessing articles, books and film. Google Scholar can be an excellent source for articles. Reputable organizations that serve the needs of individuals with ASD can provide a wealth of information, as well as professional development opportunities. Autism is amongst the most severe of the developmental disorders and you may need to ask for help. There are resource personnel who can assist you in creating plans and procedures. If you have access to assistance by a paraprofessional, provide that person with information. They, too, need to be up to date in their understanding of ASD.
About the Child…
Provide the teacher with as much information about your child as possible with particular regard to his or her likes and dislikes, previously successful strategies, sensory sensitivities, interests, favourite TV shows and movies, pets and other family members, history of communication skill development and preferred activities. It can be particularly useful if you prepare an organized document that the teacher can keep, read and refer to as necessary.
Although time consuming, for students who are identified as having special learning needs, it is critical to read their school records. You need to know the student’s history. Read all psychological and occupational therapy assessments making particular note of the most recent recommendations. Discuss these with parents and incorporate them into the student’s program where possible. As possible, spend time with your student to build a positive interaction pattern and build understanding of the teacher/student nature of your relationship.
The Individual Education Plan
In most provinces and states, parents are legally required to participate in the creation of their child’s Individual Education Plan. This participation can take many forms: a person to person meeting that includes support staff and an administrator, a written questionnaire or even a telephone conversation. A Skype meeting is another possibility. Your presence or input is required regardless of the means of attending.
As a parent, you have seen the progression of your child’s development and have an understanding of his or her areas of ability and areas of need. With each new school year and the creation of each new plan, you will have ideas about what you want the focus of your child’s program to be: social skill development, academic skills or perhaps communication skills? Naturally, all areas of participation at school will be addressed, but it is important to be thinking in terms of the entire school year and your main area of concern.
Before an IEP meeting, write down your thoughts. Make a list of what you think might be reasonable expectations for your child for the year. Consider the following areas: academics, social skills, communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, life skills and behavior.
As the school year gets underway, observe your student with ASD and perform any informal assessments that will help you establish a baseline of the student’s abilities. It is critical to read the IEP and/or report cards from the previous year to achieve an understanding of what the student was able to demonstrate. By watching how the student functions in the classroom, how he or she interacts with other students and staff, you will develop a good understanding of where the emphasis in the student’s program needs to be placed, as well as an understanding of the skill levels that the student is now able to demonstrate.
Before the IEP meeting, write down your ideas, thoughts and plans for your student’s IEP. Come to the meeting prepared and ready to listen. Very often, support staff, such as a resource teacher, speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist and school administrator will also be present. Make notes of what they say and think about how reasonable suggestions can be incorporated into the student’s program.
More than once parents have told me that they are tired of seeing the same goals on their child’s IEP year after year, that sometimes goals are not even reworded. This can be very demoralizing: Parents are too well aware of their child’s shortcomings. If goals have been on an IEP for several years and have not been achieved, then it is time to move on: Change the area of focus. Do not repeat.
Most importantly, share the Individual Education Plan with all of the student’s instructors, particularly the paraprofessional who with working with him or her. The IEP should be tattered and torn and covered with coffee stains. It is a working document that needs to be on the table, readily visible, referred to and reviewed regularly.
Sharing the Diagnosis
Whether or not to share your child’s diagnosis with his or her classmates is a personal decision; however, parents must decide what they want to be shared and how. Some parents are comfortable with full disclosure, but others are not and want nothing said, sometimes only wanting the other students to be informed that their child is different or learns differently. This can be sufficient when children are little, but as they move through the grades, their classmates are more aware, have more questions and, in the way of humans, become leery of the term “different.” Also, children who have disorders, disabilities and “differences” are usually very aware of this and want to know why they are the way they are. Children are often comforted by knowing the answers to some of these difficult questions – both classmates and the individual. Some parents share information by making a presentation to their child’s class, some make a storybook about the child and their expression of ASD and others consult with the teacher and support staff to come up with the best possible scenario for sharing this information. In several cases, I have known students with ASD who have participated in or lead their own session in sharing their diagnosis.
In all my years of teaching, I have found that informing classmates of a child’s diagnosis and its ramifications has been the most positive path. Students are then more able to be understanding friends and helpers, particularly when the teacher is able to guide classmates in specific strategies for communication and social skill development.
Whether or not a child’s diagnosis can be shared with classmates will be an important area of discussion in your first meeting. Some parents are very comfortable with this and are willing to participate in an information session. Others may prefer to discuss the particulars of what will be shared and give permission to go ahead. Unless, the student with ASD is going to actively participate in sharing information, it is usually wise to have him or her otherwise occupied in an alternate location. This allows classmates to be more relaxed and forthcoming with their questions.
Recognizing that some parents are uncomfortable with sharing information about their child’s diagnosis, you will nevertheless have to deal with the questions of your other students. Ask the parents how they would like you to respond. Classmates usually just want to know why the student with ASD communicates, learns or behaves in his or her particular way. Being able to provide a concrete answer goes a long way in creating an inclusive environment. There are many stories and films available that focus on ASD and other developmental and physical disabilities, which can be an excellent springboard for classroom discussion and heightened social awareness for all students.
How information is shared between school and home is an important issue. As parents, you need to determine what kind of format works for you, as well as what kind of information you are going to be able to share with the teacher and how often. When deciding upon a communication regimen and format, it is important to consider time constraints. Teachers and paraprofessionals cannot spend a long time writing down everything that occurred during the day. It is not logistically possible. If there is a format that was previously successful and answered your needs, share it with your child’s new teacher. It may need to be tweaked or there may be an even better format. Also, be clear about the time you have available to write anything in the communication book. Life is busy – teachers understand that. Perhaps once a week, on the weekend, you may be able to share information about your child’s life at home or in the community. Pictures are also very helpful. Teachers can use this information as a basis for conversation and communication skill development.
If you have concerns or you think that there is an area of difficulty, do not write about it in the communication book. Call. Talk to the teacher. What we write can often be misinterpreted or blown out of proportion. Call.
It is always helpful to keep in mind that a student with ASD (or any student) who has limited verbal skills or is non-verbal cannot tell their parents about their day. The communication book is their voice. Ideally, it is wonderful when we can involve the student in the home/school communication process as part of their literacy program. This may be with pictures or symbols or the printed word. When the student is in the early grades, this participation may be limited and require assistance, but over time and with a consistent approach, this may increase the student’s awareness of the need to communicate information about their day to their family. Discuss the communication format with the parent/s, as well as your own expectations about the kinds of information you would like to receive from them. Sometimes, a hastily scribbled note in the backpack saying that the child didn’t sleep well the night before can be a life saver – you will know that this may not be the day to introduce a new math concept.
Do not be overly sensitive if you receive written communication from a parent that appears to be aggressive, troubled or that suggests wrong-doing on your part. That parent may be very stressed. Call. Talk to the parent.
Always consider: What if the communication book fell off the bus? Would the privacy or dignity of the child or family be jeopardized in any way?
When Something Happens…
If you are upset about a particular event or aspect of your child’s program, talk to the teacher about it. The first line of communication should always be the teacher, not the paraprofessional, the principal nor the superintendent. The teacher will probably not be able to talk on the phone during school hours. Make an appointment to talk after school either on the phone or in person. Cool off, jot down your concerns and be ready to listen. Make your points calmly and politely. If you feel that you need back up, bring a friend or relative whose role should be supportive, but passive.
If a parent is upset about something that has happened at school or if there is an area of concern, be prepared to spend the time to discuss the issue. It is crucially important to maintain a good relationship and very often this kind of discussion yields a positive and constructive result. Be a good listener. The goal of this kind of discussion is to improve the child’s situation and to maintain an on-going good relationship between home and school. Both parties must be careful not to jump to conclusions or have preconceived notions about what the other is thinking, feeling or doing. Sometimes it is very helpful for an administrator or resource person to be present as an objective third party can lend a useful perspective to a situation.
The Issue of Homework
Many children can tolerate doing homework; however, some children have great difficulty doing school work in the home environment. If there are going to be homework requirements, at the beginning of the school year, gradually work into a schedule that is comfortable for both you and your child. Children are often very tired after a day at school and need to rest and eat before they can tackle further engagement in learning tasks. Establish a regular time for homework with a set time limit (a TimeTimer can be very useful). End the session on a positive note with a preferred activity. It is more important for homework time to be stress free and pleasant than for it to be accomplished, but accompanied by anger and frustration.
Be mindful of homework expectations. Some students with ASD will be able to follow through with homework, some will not. It is critical to have a frank discussion with the parents to discern whether or not homework is a positive experience. When the completion of homework causes the eruption of extreme anxiety and behavior, parents sometimes have to make a choice and put the quality of their family life first.
While there are many other factors that will influence the child’s experience at school, thinking about and implementing these sensible “rules of engagement” can set the stage for on-going positive interaction and support between the home and the school.