I was a teacher for over twelve years before my son was diagnosed with autism. Before he was born, I had taught countless pupils on the autistic spectrum, but it was not until my son’s diagnosis that I was able to fully appreciate the gaps in my knowledge. I hope the tips I am going to share will help other autism parents communicate with their child’s teacher.
My new found understanding as a teacher is completely tied up with the fact that I know my son so well. You can read about how my understanding developed in the post ‘An apology to my autistic students’. I know what distresses my son and the best ways to help him thrive. It is an understanding I could only have ever achieved by watching him, loving him, day after day, as his autistic tendencies became clearer.
I am by no means an expert – on supporting and adapting to autistic pupils’ needs as a teacher, or on autism itself – my range of knowledge is based purely on my experience. Never the less, I think I have learned some things that may be useful for parents, simply because I have experience from both sides: parent and teacher and before and after an autism diagnosis.
Below are some key areas where I think this knowledge and understanding can be developed between autism parents and teachers.
A lot of the information communicated to me as a teacher was factual and very general. Your child’s classroom teacher needs to know your child and no two children on the spectrum are the same.
- Create a list of key difficulties/triggers that may cause your child distress. Try to keep the information as simple and straightforward as possible and give a list of suggested strategies that may help –
KEY ISSUE ONE: SENSORY OVERLOAD
Sam can become very distressed by:
Sudden, loud noises
Lots of people talking at once
When distressed he will:
Bite his hands
Tug at his ears
To help him calm:
Take him to a quiet room
Allow time out and use of weighted blanket
Reassurance from a SINGLE person
- If your child has a particular passion for a particular topic, it could be communicated to the teacher in order to give them a ‘way in’ when dealing with situations or topics that your child finds more difficult
- If your child has more than one teacher, it is important that they communicate between each other, as well as with you. Regular meetings or others way of communicating, such as charts, diaries and phone calls, will be key.
Another key area that may help autism parents really get to grips with how their child might react in school is through observation. If possible spend a day, or even a few hours, observing the routines and different activities your child will take part in, in order to identify potential difficulties that may arise. As mentioned before, no one knows your child like you do and you are in the best position to work out which areas of the school day could become challenging for them.
I recently observed a nursery day for my son, before he moves to preschool room. It was a useful and interesting experience – from both sides, I think – as I was able to identify issues that many staff who were experienced in dealing with SEN wouldn’t have necessarily considered problems for my son.
For example, I noted that in the preschool they keep the classroom door open at all times, as children need to use the toilet independently, unlike the previous classrooms. This is something that might cause my son distress and I was able to warn them and give them suggestions for ways to calm him if this happened.
Another thing I noted was that they give ‘five minute warnings’ before new activities start. They expected that this kind of routine would be exactly the kind of thing that they should be doing to support E – and in many ways routine does help him a great deal. However, the reality with this example was that that warnings are something he is likely to find very difficult. He doesn’t really understand time signals like ‘five minutes’ and may expect the activity to begin at once, and, again become distressed but unable to fully communicate the reason for that distress to the staff.
We were able to discuss possible solutions – such as giving my son a visual idea of the time with a five minute egg timer – and pre-empt a possible difficulty. All children react slightly differently; even the most experienced and qualified SEN staff are working with generalities until they know your child well. You can give them some specifics.
Consistency and Flexibility
Consistency can be a great tool for autism parents – but it can also become a barrier. Children on the spectrum respond extremely well to routines, visual timetable and even key phrases. However, if those routines are deviated from, it can cause a great deal of anxiety for the young person.
Schools are places of rigid routine and consistency. Teachers will feel very uncomfortable about deviating from those rules and treating any child ‘differently’. Autistic children can have very rigid thought processes and ideas about the way things should be. If those two very set views come into conflict with one another, then it can cause a real breakdown in the relationship between staff, pupils and parents.
I remember how sceptical I was about some things. For example, when a parent requested that a pupil should be allowed to take their jumper off, even though this was against the general school rule. How painful could wearing a jumper be, I thought. That was my attitude before having my son. I was not a callous person. It is just that the gap in my understanding of the needs of a pupil with autism was very wide.
It is only seeing my son wailing when an item of clothing is giving him sensory issues, and loving him so much that I would do anything to relieve his distress that made me realise – well actually a jumper can be pretty painful. Your child’s teacher needs as much guidance and information on this as possible to help develop that understanding.
Dealing with such as situation as a teacher will still be very difficult. If you let one pupil take a jumper off, four others could demand the same. As a teacher I may not feel it is wise to relate your child’s reason for special dispensation – and individual parents may not want the reason announced either. Teachers will be constantly needing to balance the needs of your child with the way the rest of a class might react.
Therefore there has to be some flexibility in some of the school’s routines, and there may have to be some adaptation of some of the routines and expectations at home. You will have to appreciate each other’s limitations – no teacher or parent can fulfil everyone’s needs all of time.
To sum up, as autism parents, we have been on a long, hard journey, learning how you can support our child. We have discovered the hard way, through trial, error and desperation, how best to manage and guide them. We are still learning. Sometimes we still get it wrong, but we keep trying. All parents go on this journey but for autism parents there are a few more twists and turns – the journey is that bit more fraught and uncertain.
Your child’s teacher has not been on this journey, has not seen your child at their best and at their worst- and that’s why you’ve got to fight, desperately, passionately, to convey who your child is, to communicate the essence of them to their teacher.
It boils down to that one idea. The greater the teacher’s understanding of your child’s individual needs, the more they can support and help them. That understanding will be developed by a constant flow of information between school and home and by all of us – parents, teachers, students – sharing that journey together.