by Tara O’Gorman, MSW
As the start to the new school year approaches, those familiar feelings begin to creep up. For parents of children on the autism spectrum, there are mixed feelings of fear, anxiety, dread, excitement, and hope. If the previous school year went well, we pray the new year brings even more success. If the year did not go well, our minds are trapped in a circle of ‘what ifs’ and fears about another year of tears and frustration.
With some pre-planning, however, parents may be able to address the negative feelings and focus on the positive hopes for the upcoming year. First, it is important to recognize that a spectrum of feelings is healthy and expected. Whether new to the educational journey or experienced after many years, parents are concerned about how their child will handle new teachers, new places, academic expectations, sensory issues, transitions, and social interactions.
Kids in middle or high school may be preparing for new experiences including multiple teachers, changing for PE, working combination locks on lockers, and navigating a large school building. Modifications and accommodations can be written into IEPs or 504 plans, but as parents we can expect some extra anxiety from our kids who are already dealing with so much change. Feeling slightly nervous or downright terrified are all normal responses for parents at any stage after their child has been diagnosed.
Just like children on the spectrum do better when they know what to expect and have a plan of action, so do parents and teachers. Before the students even step foot into the classroom on the first day of school, parents can take steps to prepare their children and the teacher(s) for the transition into a new year. Many parents believe that an IEP or 504 plan is sufficient for preparing teachers for a child with special needs. Unfortunately, many parents find these plans are barely viewed, plans are not put immediately into place to enforce the plans, or that the information does not reach all teachers and staff who will interact with the student.
Whether the child has one primary teacher, as in elementary school, or has several teachers throughout the day, likely there will be music, PE, art, lunchroom, hallway, and recess considerations that should be addressed to introduce your child to the many people who will come in contact with your child throughout the year. Education takes a collaborative effort and ideally, official documentation and face-to-face meetings offer a positive opportunity to create a partnership for success. Some suggestions to ease everyone into a new situation and set up a parent-teacher-student relationship that (hopefully) ensures a more successful year:
–> Write a letter to the teacher. Emails are often the easiest means of communicating. A typed or handwritten letter delivered to the teacher prior to the first few days of school is often a better way to make an introduction than relying on the quick face-to-face early meeting that happens during a back-to-school night or orientation. Students in middle school and high school will interact with five or six teachers each day, and those teachers may change throughout the year. It will be more work on your part, but it is still important to develop some kind of relationship with each teacher and keep the communication going throughout the year.
–> Personalize your child by including a photo with your introductory letter. Describe your child. What motivates her? What works to keep him focused on a task? How can the teacher recognize, and help stave off or minimize, an impending meltdown? If the school year has already begun, this letter can still be very helpful to the teacher and your child and may be a good point of reference if issues arise later in the year.
There is a lot more understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) than ever before, but that does not mean you should expect your child’s teacher to be an expert in autism or educating students on the spectrum. If your child is mainstreamed during most or all of the day, teachers may not even be aware of special considerations until an issue comes up or until they receive official documentation, which may take weeks or months. Parents should not assume the teachers in a mainstream classroom are highly trained to work with students with ASD.
If the teacher(s) are uninformed about the autism spectrum, be sure they have access to basic information to guide them. Offer yourself as an expert on your child, but also offer to guide them to any resources that you feel may assist with classroom expectations and transitions between activities. Although not ideal, most teachers have minimal training and experience with special-needs children and appreciate the parents’ willingness to give them some insight into how to best help the student succeed in the classroom.
–>Keep communication lines open. Making sure the teacher truly understands that you want information is critical. Not all parents want details about daily hiccups or even major successes. If you want details, let the teacher know that is what you hope for, without proclaiming it as an expectation. Let the teacher know whether email or phone conversations work best for you and try to be flexible with communication systems they also may have in place. Discuss contingency plans for substitute teachers, schedule changes, and transitions between daily tasks.
If your protective instincts sometimes come off as hostile, let your teachers know that too! Sometimes our hypervigilance can be negatively received by those who do not know us, or our intentions, well. Until your child’s teacher gets to know you, it is difficult for him or her to interpret how you will take criticism, suggestions, questions, or praise.
–>Create partnerships with everyone involved closely in your child’s education. If your child has a special education assistant or aide, take the time to develop a personal relationship with that person as well. Particularly in later grades, the assistants and aides will have more face time with your child than the teachers, and they become the biggest advocates in the classroom and in elective classes, with teachers you may not have an opportunity to meet often.
–>Be prepared for opportunities to make changes when a plan is not working. An IEP or 504 may have detailed plans and expectations, but sometimes circumstances change, personalities clash or new challenges arise. If you and your child’s teacher have a healthy relationship, it is often easy to make a minor adjustment and see if the small tweak has the desired effect. You may find that a big production involving the special education coordinator, school psychologist, and the complete team is not always necessary.
While not every educational experience will be harmonious, there are steps we can take as parents to help ease the transition into a new school year and continue bridging the gap throughout the school year. Small gestures of kindness and collaboration make a big difference for teachers who are often overwhelmed with an entire classroom of varying personalities. If you can find a positive way to make you and your child stand out early in the year, many of the worries and fears can be greatly reduced. Continue to reach out to teachers and staff throughout the year to be sure the current plan is working and to seek solutions if your child’s needs are not being met.
Tara O’Gorman, MSW is an independent consultant and advocate for individuals and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and provides consulting for organizations working within the ASD community through SpectrAbilities. She is a group facilitator for adolescents and young adults with ASD and is a proud mom to two sons, including an Asperger’s teenager. Tara also serves on the Editorial Advisory Board for Spectrums Magazine.