Teachers can help parents of newly diagnosed autistic children succeed in school

11/27/2011
Special Needs
KIMBERLY M. KISER and SAMUEL J. SPITALLI

For parents, it can be an overwhelming and daunting experience to come to terms with and maneuver through the public school special education process in order to get the best services for their newly diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) child. Learning special education jargon, in itself, can be like learning another language; in addition, learning about Autism as a range of disorders with students exhibiting mild to severe behaviors can also be difficult to comprehend in the school setting. A positive and constructive relationship between school and home always encourages a successful school experience for any student, yet that connection is indispensable in the sphere of Autism.

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Although parents know their child’s strengths and weaknesses, a decision to consider to what extent a student with Autism should be included in the general education program should be a team decision.

Teachers can begin to help parents support their recently diagnosed Autistic child by engaging them early-on, by being user-friendly, and by offering some practical tips to help establish a compatible relationship with school.

Getting to Know You

Set up an informal parent-teacher conference — not an IEP Meeting or Child Study — early in the school year. Parents can be asked to share any information they wish about their child that they believe may help the teacher to motivate their child, keep him or her on task, or even short-circuit unacceptable behaviors. The discussion could include information about temperament, personal strengths and weaknesses, or any information that is not necessarily available in permanent records, yet important to know.

The teacher will have the opportunity to explain the curriculum, describe how the teaching of Autistic children is done, reassure parents that their children are in good hands, and to demystify the whole world of special education. Both the classroom teacher and the school guidance counselor can clarify some of the jargon, especially the IEP.

The goal of this informal parent-teacher conference, then, is not only to mutually share helpful information, but also to establish a comfort level and begin an open and trusting partnership.

The Autistic Classroom

Parents are naturally going to focus only on their Autistic child and his or her success in school, yet it is essential for them to understand and appreciate that the Autistic classroom can be difficult for everyone — teachers, students and parents alike. Teachers will be attempting to address a wide-range of behaviors and needs simultaneously because every child is unique. It is because of the uniqueness of each Autistic child that teachers need to help parents understand that their child is who he or she is and cannot be like someone else. For teachers and parents, being on the same page with this understanding is a prerequisite for a successful partnership.

Ask parents to reinforce social skills taught in school.

It wasn’t too long ago that teachers believed that parents were responsible for teaching social skills. That view has changed, and now parents and schools work together to teach appropriate skills; they impact students’ successful functioning both in and out of school.

Taking a Closer Look at Social Skills

Social skills go the heart of what enables people to successfully communicate and interrelate with each other, verbally and non-verbally. Poor social skills can be manifested in an Autistic student’s difficulty maintaining friends. Since learning social skills is essential to the Autistic student’s ability to negotiate the trials and tribulations of life, it is essential for teachers to impress upon parents the importance of reinforcing those lessons at home. Simple lessons, like following directions, listening, asking for permission, or saying “I’m sorry” can easily be fortified at home. These and more social skills will be taught at school in order to help the Autistic student learn a set of survival skills, learn how to understand and express their feelings, accept and tolerate others, and see how they are perceived by others.

Creating and maintaining life-long healthy social interactions should be promoted consistently both in school and at home.

Ask for a consistent enforcement of home-school rules.

While at school, explicit expectations of behavior are taught, rewarded, and dealt with in the most consistent manner possible with the ultimate goal of teaching students to become responsible citizens. It makes good sense to enlist parents’ support to reinforce the same standards at home so children actually learn and internalize that goal.

Consistency is key.

That is why, especially in the Autistic classroom, teachers want parents to reinforce behaviors and habits taught in school. For example, if a teacher requires students to keep their desks, study place, and materials organized and tidy, the same behavior can be taught and verified at home. As a reciprocal check, the teacher then appropriately awards the student for consistently observing that same behavior both at school and at home. It is this kind of consistent home/school set of expectations that enable Autistic students to learn desirable behaviors and use them to their advantage into adulthood.

Explain the concept of “readiness,” the ability of the student with Autism to make the transition to and benefit from the regular education environment.

Federal law, under the IDEA, mandates inclusion, a practice in which school districts must educate students with disabilities in regular classrooms in local schools to the greatest extent possible. Many parents wish to include their autistic child in the regular education classrooms because they feel their child may have more opportunities to improve social interactions, raise self-esteem, and boost a sense of belonging. While those are all desirable reasons, teachers should help parents understand that inclusion needs to be carefully thought out so that it is appropriate to their child’s unique needs and likely to include a learning environment in which he or she will acquire skills and grasp the curriculum.

Not a cure all.

Teachers of students with Autism are well-equipped to predict if students will be successful in the general education program by observation over time and by collecting and assessing performance/behavioral data from the child’s current placement. If the general education setting is considered to be the right setting, it is also crucial to do all of the preliminary things to prepare the student to be successful, such as ensuring that certain prerequisite skills and habits have been acquired. Teachers need to ensure that expectations for the student are realistic in order to preclude disappointments and frustrations from a premature placement.

A Team Decision

Teachers often lament that some parents have the idea that they can somehow “cure” their child by exposing them to other students in classes with general education or more inclusion subject area classes other than a special education classroom. Although parents know their child’s strengths and weaknesses, a decision to consider to what extent a student with Autism should be included in the general education program should be a team decision.

Teachers can caution parents that many students with autism have sensory deficits and have difficulties coping with bright lighting or other forms of noise and texture. It is really important for all of this to be communicated to the parent in order to avoid any potential problems in the educational environment, not only affecting students with Autism, but also affecting other students if the behavior is disruptive and interferes with other students’ educational opportunities.

From despair to hope.

Only a parent with an Autistic child must know what many have described as simultaneous feelings of shock, fear, pain, and guilt when learning that their child has been medically diagnosed with Autism. The thought of a child successfully surviving 12 years of schooling and becoming an independent adult can seem far-fetched; yet there are success stories of those who do, the most recognized and celebrated being Temple Grandin, author of five books, recipient of a Ph.D. in animal science, and an associate professor at Colorado State University.

It won’t be easy for many, and it will be frustrating for students, parents, and teachers. The good news is that with the help of teachers, speech and occupational therapists, as well as behavioral health care providers, learning and succeeding is not beyond the reach of students with Autism — and that is the message of hope that teachers need to profess and model every day, as they encourage parents to work closely with them and stay both informed and involved in supporting the school’s goals and home-school partnership.

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