To say being the parent of a child with special needs is synonymous with the word "adventure" is a hysterical understatement. Riding a roller coaster without a seatbelt is more like it. Because my son was diagnosed "late" (he flew under the radar before diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum at 11-years-old), I still spend a lot of moments feeling guilty that we did not provide him with the proper support systems until he was in 5th grade (he's now in 8th grade).
Diving into the world of Autism has been an eye-opening ride, to witness first-hand how a human being can see the world so differently from me. It's caused me to slow down my thinking and reacting, questioning every instinct of what I thought parenting was.
Next, my attitudes and opinions about how a child should learn, complete school work, and manage relationships, was broken down, and once my son was approved for an IEP, I saw education in an entirely different light in terms of what teachers can do to support my child.
I knew my child needed something additional in the classroom - but what? I didn't know where to begin or what to ask for. Overwhelm quickly set in.
As a parent of one teenager on the Autism Spectrum and two neurotypical kiddos, all I want for them in life is to be happy, self-sufficient, and kind human beings. I hope the suggestions below will provide insight on how educators and families are integral partners, both with the same goal: to support our children in school and in life.
The ideas below have greatly benefited our entire family to provide support, boost communication, and get grounded from anxiety and overwhelm.
Educators and parents all have one common mission: to help their students/children fulfill their individual purpose in school, establish mutual expectations, and work collaboratively to help with personal, social-emotional development, and academic achievement. Each student has unique set of needs, requiring a tailored support system that's easy to understand for all parties involved and most importantly, flexible.
Parents and care-givers of learners on the Autism Spectrum possess valuable information. Why? Because you know your child best, making communication and collaboration with school administration, teachers, social workers, and therapists vitally important.
We're in this together!
how being on the spectrum fits into special education
"Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a group of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by repetitive and characteristic patterns of behavior and difficulties with social communication and interaction. The symptoms are present from early childhood and affect daily functioning" (NIH, 2020).
While this definition sums up the basic diagnosis of ASD, being on the "spectrum" means each individual can have a broad range of symptoms and each level of the disability may vary. Children considered "high functioning" may need smaller class sizes, a modified instructional presentation, and still participate in general education classrooms, while others need one-on-one support with paraprofessionals to maneuver through a school building and transition from one class to the next.
A FLEXIBLE PLAN OF ACTION
instruction strategies (for educators)
During instruction, it's imperative to establish a learning environment that feels safe physically and emotionally. The three instructional strategies below can help ease stress in the classroom and allow children on the Autism Spectrum moments of success integral to learning and boosting self-esteem.
Processing and Transitional Support - Teachers can present instructions in multiple capacities including written on dry erase board, spoken aloud by teacher/aide, and/or directly in front of the student via a print-out. After instruction is given, allowing time to comprehend expectations is beneficial for learners with slow processing speed.
Social Emotional Support - Understanding and managing your emotions is empowering. Building relationships, troubleshooting conflict, and establishing a safe space for learning encourages social, emotional, and academic growth. Taking the time to identify feelings, practice compassion, and manage stress in the classroom helps foster relationships and create a foundation of community and empathy once students transition to adult-hood.
Sensory Support - Allowing opportunities to help students cope and replenish after sensory overload (where the brain is receiving too much input through the five senses to sort out and process) makes transition to new activities more manageable than "pushing through" to the next topic/class/assignment. Work with your student to find a safe, quiet space to recover from highly stimulating environments and be proactive in taking breaks before meltdown and shutdown occurs (Asha & Barimo, 2019).
intervention strategies at home (for parents and caregivers)
Implementing similar strategies at home can help promote communication skills,
social skills, and literacy skills. Make sure you take time to listen to child. Ask where they feel comfortable and safe learning at home. Next, try these suggestions to help troubleshoot disconnection, lack of interest, and emotional regulation.
Explore creative ways to learn - Put aside old opinions of only using "traditional" ways to learn. Listening to a book on Audible is just as rewarding as reading a paper back version. Speech to text apps can help students get their thoughts down and homework complete.
Encourage different ways of communicating - If your child has a difficult time finding words to describe how he/she is feeling, encourage "drawing (or writing) it out", where art and creative expression can help communicate rather than frustrate. During times of conflict, simply allowing a child to slow down and focus on something else can bring them back to a calm and reasonable state.
In the event your child has entered the "Red Zone" in terms of regulation feeling intense emotions, rage, or anger, simply making sure he/she is safe, cannot hurt him/herself or anyone else, and remove any unnecessary stimulation (shut off tv, radio, dim lights, ask people to leave the room, etc.) is the only action or communication necessary (Kuypers, 2020).
Grounding activities - A quick walk or tapping into the 5-4-3-2-1 technique can help diffuse anxiety and panic, bringing the mind back to the present moment when self-regulation is thrown out the window. Ask your child which adult he/she feels safe and calm spending time with in your home and ask that person for support not only in moments of dysregulation, but calm states as well.
communication & collaboration strategies
Working together is key. There are many ways to communicate and collaborate with state representatives, school, service providers, and parents/guardians to implement intervention
services. Below are three suggestions for conveying information that improves student support.
Sharing language and wording - Children on the Autism Spectrum appreciate and thrive with consistent routine and that includes the way we talk to (and with) them. If parents are using a particular nomenclature prompting a positive response from the student, share with your IEP team and visa versa.
Establish the best way to communicate - Listing an email address that's never checked is not a great way to kick off effective communication with service providers, teachers and school administration. Be receptive to talking more with your child's team instead of constant email communication which can get lost in translation.
Introduce other support teams to school personnel - Outside therapists, counselors, art teachers, coaches, speech pathologists, anyone who "gets" your child is worth introducing to an IEP team to help with collaboration strategies to bring out the best in your child emotionally, socially, and intellectually.
local & virtual support
Support is out there, beyond the walls of your child's school, yet once adolescence and the teenage years kick in, resources seem to dwindle. Consider these local and online organizations to learn more about your teenaged student on the spectrum and shine a light on new strategies and approaches to living and thriving with your child.
Founded by Debbie Reber, the TILT Parenting community and podcast supports parents and caregivers raising differently-wired kids from a place of confidence, connection, and joy.
Website - tiltparenting.com
Community Therapy Services (CTS) welcomes communication with the entire family. In addition to occupational therapy and speech/language pathology, CTS explores physical therapy, social groups, and sports injuries.
Website - ctspediatrics.com
Address: 525 Tyler Rd, STE Q,
1st St. Charles, IL 60174
The Prairie Clinic is a multidisciplinary group of mental health professionals focusing on the individual child and their families. Services include counseling, psychological evaluations, and teen social groups.
Website - theprairieclinic.com
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is an excellent source of reputable information regarding social-emotional learning (SEL). Free weekly webinars are published every Friday with practical information on how SEL can be helpful in response to non-traditional learning environments and the impact of COVID-19 on learners and educators.
Website - casel.org
Address: 815 West Van Buren St., Suite 210, Chicago, IL 60607
About the author:
Elizabeth Rago is a mama, wife, writer, and the creator of The Modern Domestic Woman (MDW). After a series of unfortunate events including job loss, a car accident, bankruptcy, and a physical and emotional breakdown, Elizabeth felt compelled to shift the primary focus of MDW from pretty pictures and goofy memes to a space of honest support for the modern woman.
A pursuer of peace, Elizabeth is on a mission to help women from all backgrounds and walks of life to find their own strength and talents amid the chaos of life.
Readers can contact Elizabeth at firstname.lastname@example.org
Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet (2020). National Institute of Neurological Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Fact-Sheet
Kuypers, L. (2020). The zones of regulation. Kuypers Consulting, Inc.
Piller, A., Barimo, J. (2019). Sensory strategies to calm and engage children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. https://doi.org/10.1044/leader.FTR2.24042019.56