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We’re All on the Same Team

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Autism Asperger’s Digest | May/June 2013

04_parents_and_school_system

I am convinced that working with the schools was a key to my daughter’s growth process.

Home-Team Advantage

Imagine watching a baseball game. The players for the away team are warming up on the field. The home team smirks as they are fully aware of the home team advantage they possess. They know the weakness of the field, but they also know its strength. It’s with this confidence they relax on the bench, waiting for the game to begin.

Contrast this to the mindset of the visiting team, who can rely only on stories of previous games here as well as a furtive few moments stretching and catching before the official start of play. General rules of baseball apply, but the nuances that change with each and every away game underscore the meaning of playing defense. Yes, the visiting team is at a disadvantage—but nothing they can’t overcome with a little strategy!

All too often, the previous scenario reminds me of the school-home relationship. For starters, we perpetually consider ourselves on separate “teams.” What the parents want versus what the school wants. Parents will always be the visiting team, as time at any given school is limited. The school, aka the home team, is always at an advantage as they fully understand the special needs process and what is needed to succeed in their environment. For parents, the school is often rather intimidating as we rely on stories of fellow parents to paint a picture of what we can expect when our children enter those hallowed doors. Likewise, years of experiences evolve into patterns, which the school recognizes, making it easy for them to default to assuming how each family’s experiences will unfold.

Truth is both often approach those first few days and months all wrong. Too many parents shift into full defense mode (some would say offense), while the school goes by its weathered playbook. Just as in the baseball game scenario, each views the other as opponents when we really need to suit up for the same side—the side the child is on.

Competition or Cooperation?

Several years ago, during the middle of first grade, our daughter Kristina was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We’ve learned a lot along the way, and our entire family has been stretched in ways we never thought possible. School, to be honest, has been one of the more difficult pieces of our life’s puzzle to sort out and master. But now that Kristina is eyeing her final year of high school, we are reaping the dividends of all the meetings, journaling, advocating, and hard work. Choosing to see the school and us (the parents) as teammates instead of opponents really works!

It’s that easy.

One aphorism I live by is that nobody is 100 percent perfect nor is anyone 100 percent faulty. Unfortunately, too many parents fall into the trap of envisioning the school making choices that will benefit the school (or school budgets) over the child, which puts them on the defensive from Day One. On the flip side, I’ve personally heard educators talk about cases where they’ve pegged both student and family solely with their first impressions. Any educator acting as Madame Crystal Ball can all but doom the student’s path into adulthood. With a change of perspective, both sides can work together in harmony, with the child winning in the process.

Communication + Consistency = Cooperation

So, let’s get down to business. How do we ensure successful school-home cooperation? One of the main keys to success or failure I’ve observed over the years is the quality of communication, coupled with making assumptions. For anyone with a high school student, you know what I mean! Does this sound familiar?
“Hey mom, I forgot to tell you that the gazillion dollar deposit for the field trip is due, like in two hours.”
Mom contorts face, adding to the wrinkle contingent on her forehead.
“How long have you known about this?”
“I dunno, like a month? Just write a check, okay? What’s the big deal?”
In this scenario, it’s easy to see how delayed communication adds undue stress to a situation, while the assumption made on the part of the teen that mom is a walking bank machine only adds to the drama.

Communication is, indeed, key to success—or disappointment.

With school, we’ve seen everything from paperwork never coming home to paperwork due in some obscenely short amount of time. We’ve even missed schoolwide events as they were never communicated to us. Sometimes, the culprit is our child; other times, the school. But inadequate communication becomes a bigger issue when it comes to understanding how your spectrum child is functioning in the school setting.

Each year (or semester), we plan a meeting with the education team and set a plan in place. Typically, we introduce Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) as it relates to our daughter and gauge the team’s understanding of it. We ask the teachers which method of communication works best for them (e.g., email, phone calls, note home), and respect it. We also ask to be notified in a timely fashion if any problems arise. (There is nothing worse than learning your child is having difficulties weeks to months after problems start.) We also ask them for their thoughts and whether they have any questions or advice. We demonstrate that we are genuinely willing to work together for our child while recognizing that these professionals have many other students in their classrooms.

This includes asking what we can do at home to support their efforts as well as mentioning what already works, thereby creating consistency between school and home. These particulars change over the years as kids evolve from younger grades to high school.

Let’s break it down into easy-to-remember points:

Teamwork Tips for Parents

  • Do not assume the school staff understands (or does not understand) ASD. Rather, choose to focus on how ASD affects your child. No need for a dissertation on the entire spectrum! The school needs to know how your child’s ASD will affect him in the school setting.
  • Discuss and agree on expected frequency as well as method of communication with the school staff, determining the “go-to person” for most questions and concerns.
  • Discuss techniques that work well for your child (e.g., rewards, consequences) as well as ones that are ineffective.
  • Demonstrate a willingness to work with school staff and follow through with any commitments, attending meetings promptly.
  • Be aware that corporal punishment (i.e., paddling) is legal in some US states. If it is legal in your area, be sure to discuss it with school staff.
  • Remember to thank the school staff for working together. It’s so easy to criticize, isn’t it? A smile and a thank-you go a long way. A special note every now and then can also help. Keep positive—and optimistic!
  • Take notes of every meeting and always come prepared. However, resist the urge to craft a scroll-length list of requests and observations. Keep it simple yet focused.
  • Keep an open mind, choosing to listen to what school staff have to say.

Teamwork Tips for Teachers

  • Listen to the parents and treat each family as unique, resisting the urge to assume their situation will mimic that of others.
  • Resist the urge to compare girls on the spectrum with their male counterparts. Markers of AS, in particular, can be exhibited differently in girls.
  • If you have questions about a child’s behavior or ASD in general, don’t hesitate to ask the parent. Most parents have a large working knowledge of ASD and are happy to educate others to help them better understand their child.
  • Practice active listening skills, really listening when the parents are sharing their concerns and insights—not just thinking about what would be best to say next.
  • Recognize that parents are working under a tremendous amount of stress. Many come to meetings anxious and not knowing what to expect. A kind smile goes a long way!

Teamwork Tip for All

  • Remember whose team you are on—the child’s!

Can you picture how strong we become when we work together? Can you image how far your student will go—and grow—being a part of such a team? Take Kristina. When she started elementary school, we weren’t sure she’d be a candidate for college, as she had so many obstacles to overcome. Now, not only is attending college a viable possibility, but living on campus—out of state at a highly competitive school—is within her grasp. It’s too early to say where she will end up, but I am convinced that working with the schools was a key to her growth process. Not everyone will achieve this level of independence and autonomy, but to classify an elementary school student as unfit for a college track does her a great disservice!

Go ahead. Get on the same team! After all, isn’t “what’s out there” after school is over the true opponent? With our hard work, teamwork, and a long-term vision, spectrum kids can have an incredible support system to help them launch into adulthood.

BIO

Julie Clark is an author, speaker, small business owner, and mom with a heart for increasing ASD awareness. Julie’s book, Asperger’s in Pink, is available at FHAutism.com in both eBook and print formats.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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