When Your Child With Autism Goes to School; Navigating the System and Building Your Team (Part 2: 11 Tips to Team Success)

Keeping the points from my previous post in mind, here are some things you can do to make your school experience with your child with Autism the best possible journey.

  1. Educate yourself.  Before you go into your first meeting with your school, learn about your school district/division, state/province policies, procedures and beliefs around high needs learners. This will allow you to go into the meeting knowing your rights and your limitations regarding what you can expect for your kiddo.  It will guide your questioning, and will let the school team see that you are a savvy parent.
  2. Before meeting with the school team, have conversations with your autism support providers.  Your SLP, OT, PT, Autism Support Worker, medical team… everyone who works with your kiddo.  Some of these services may no longer be able to provide services as there will be people within the school system who will provide services instead.  IF this is the case, ask for a TRANSITION MEETING which INCLUDES you.  Transition meetings ensure that information is passed from one specialist to another.  Your presence at the meeting will give you the advantage of knowledge so that you can continue to support the service and so that you can have input into where changes might be needed.
  3. Talk to the Special Educator, Principal or professional who is designated in charge of special programming.  Find out what you can expect regarding a TEAM approach.  Many schools have mandates for team approaches.  Not all schools follow through with a full team approach.  By knowing what to expect, and by knowing the school district/division expectations, you will be empowered to request the level of team collaboration that you are entitled to and comfortable with.  Team meetings are time consuming to set up and take a great deal of coordination as many professionals have huge case loads.  But don’t let this deter you! Be as flexible and accommodating as you can, but make sure meetings are happening.  Set the next meeting at the end of the current one while everyone is at the table.  Generally there will be a team leader that takes care of this, but if they forget or omit to do it, bring it up!
  4. Ask for notes and  keep a file.  You are entitled to copies of any notes from team meetings, so ask for a copy and take your own notes to be sure you remember discussions.  Sometimes time spans between meetings can be great and people may forget discussions.  Having your own notes empowers you to help keep the team on track.
  5. Get copies of professional reports and assessments for your file. Specialist reports will be available to you at some level. Professionals who do assessments have different protocols regarding sharing of information.  There are also some types of reports where numbers and scores cannot be shared.  (This is to your advantage, so respect it! Sharing of numbers increases the risk that people who aren’t trained to interpret scores might get hold of them and misinterpret them or breach confidentiality!)  But get copies of whatever you can, especially the recommendations for programming!  SIGN whatever sharing agreements are necessary between your current service providers and the school so that they can work collaboratively and make sure that programming continues uninterrupted and confidentiality is respected.
  6. ASK QUESTIONS.  Go into your meetings with questions as opposed to demands.  Questions are less harsh, but still get to the point of your concerns. Your team will be receptive.  Demands have the effect of putting people on the defensive which makes for difficult team dynamics. Asking questions gives you the opportunity to hear what people’s ideas and plans are, and ensures that all team members are hearing what others think, and have the opportunity to give their input.  (See www.empoweredparentplan.com for a downloadable list of questions you can ask or adapt to your needs.)
  7. You will probably be asked to sign a form which outlines your child’s goals and program.  Make sure you understand it, and ask for clarification before signing.  These program plans are mandated in most school districts/divisions and are legal documents.  Please understand that they take a huge amount of time and coordination to put together, and that the person who’s preparing them probably is preparing a lot of them.  There may be mistakes or things left out.  Checking before signing is diligent, and will be helpful in making sure that things are clear.  Going forward, focus your discussions around that plan.  Copies of the plan should be shared with you and with anyone working with your child.  Most of these plans are “living documents” which means they are not written in stone.  If you think something’s not working, have a meeting to change the plan.
  8. IF there is a change in schools because of a move or moving up grades, or if a team member changes within the school, make sure that a transition meeting is held.  There should be a transition process for your child as well so that they understand the change and are not surprised/upset by it.  In my experience, sometimes things happen quickly and the school may not have thought about or had time for a transition.  Feel free to bring up the idea and ask how the change can be eased for your child. Social stories are a great strategy for transitions.
  9. Educational Associates or Teacher Aides, (whatever your school district calls paraprofessionals hired to support your child’s programming), are a great resource for your child, but they are not the teacher. Not all students with high needs will have full paraprofessional support.  It’s not always needed.  Sometimes it is needed, but budgets are tight and the school is unable to provide additional supports.  This can be a touchy subject.  First of all, realize that your child’s primary educator needs to be the teacher.  If other students or a paraprofessional are able to give some additional help that is perfect.  But make sure that decisions are being made and that your communication occurs WITH the teacher.  Some teachers feel inadequate when working with high needs kids because they have little experience or training with the specific special need, and are inclined to give a lot of responsibility to paraprofessionals who have the best of intentions, but may not have any training or experience with Autism. Teachers have a team of other professionals around them who can support and advise them.  Children with Autism often become very attached to and comfortable with a paraprofessional, which is great in so many ways.  Difficulty working with anyone other than the aide is not good for your child.  If they will only work for one particular aide, and there is a change, your child may have difficulty.  Paraprofessionals can also be assigned to work with OTHER students freeing the teacher to work with your child. I would never undervalue the role of the paraprofessional because I know from experience how an Aide in the classroom can be a life saver for the teacher and a huge asset to the child.  But as a parent, as much as you can, encourage your child’s learning flexibility and being given social and learning opportunities with PEERS, and some time with the teacher and perhaps other assistants, not just socializing all day with one particular adult. The paraprofessional should be a facilitator of social interactions, not a replacement for them.
  10. 10.You know your child best.  It’s not a bad idea to remind others of that sometimes.  On the other hand, your child may not behave the same at school as at home for a variety of reasons (another whole blog post for this).  Sometimes parenting kids with ASD can be so exhausting for parents that they slowly, slowly start giving in on more and more things.  It’s easier to give in than to fight, and you’ve got your kiddo 24/7. This is your reality.  It may not hurt to consider how the school is addressing things differently, and to carry that strategy into the home.
  11. 11.In my work with high needs kids, my biggest belief is that if we can give them nothing else, we should at the very least give kids what they want/need most in life, and that is Social Opportunity.  What we all want for our kids is for them to have friends and be loved, valued and included.  This is the gift of inclusion.  In the final analysis, whether or not your kiddo can name the food groups is much less important than whether or not s/he can live, work and play with others peacefully and be truly part of a group.  I could go ON and ON on this point.  In my view peers are not other high needs kids.  Peer groups should be a reflection of everyday society, including people of all abilities and needs.  My personal bias I know, but also the belief of many individuals and groups who work with high needs individuals.  There may be a place for some time in individual program work where life or communication skills can be learned and practiced away from the group.  But in general, your kiddo needs to learn to exist in the world.  And that can only be learned through practice.  We are social beings, and social learners. Even kids with Autism desire social contact because it is innate in all of us!  But they have trouble with it.  Social anxiety is often the underlying cause of this, and there are ways to address this if we try.  But being removed from social situations does not help.  Preparing for social situations is key.

I’ve said so much here and I fear it may be overwhelming.  I’m truly passionate about this topic and believe that children with ASD are a joy and a privilege to know and work with. I also know that they can be very challenging. When you enter the school system and through life, you are your kiddo’s #1 advocate.  Your engaged, informed involvement in his/her education will be a great gift both to your child and to the team working with him/her.  Know your rights, and expect them.  Be gentle but assertive with your team mates (they’re also trying their best!) to make the best possible collaborative work toward your child’s learning.  The value you will gain from everyone putting their efforts into the child (rather than into working against each other or constantly trying to establish a workable team) will pay off greatly.

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BIO- Roberta Luchinski is the Owner/Facilitator of Empowered Parent Plan.  She helps busy parents prevent, respond to and change their kiddo’s difficult behaviours.  Roberta uses positive parenting strategies and brain based methods tried and true from her experience as a Mom, Grandma and 30 years of Educator experience. Roberta holds an MEd in Educational Psychology and has worked with diverse students as a Classroom Teacher, a Diversity Teacher, a Special Educator and a Consultant.

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