By Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk
Here’s a statement that demonstrates our remarkable grasp of the obvious: autism is very, very complex. So we continue to be amazed by the frequency with which we get questions (often from reporters) asking us to synthesize autism or some aspect of it down to “the single most important thing.” As if there could ever be such a thing. Nevertheless, when recently asked, what is the single most important thing parents need to know about special education?, we had an answer ready.
The most important thing parents and teachers can do for their student with autism is to create and sustain a productive working relationship based on honesty, respect, empathy, commonly shared goals and ideals. Parent-school partnerships do have an emotional layer, and it can sometimes waylay even the best-intentioned participants. Creating and maintaining positive partnerships requires that both parents/caregivers and educators/service providers hold to these actions and attitudes:
- Commit to a team mentality, with a common goal of creating the best possible educational program for the student. Resolving issues in a win-win format is essential to fostering a long-term positive relationship. Leave egos and personality differences at the door, bearing in mind at all times that you are involved in a partnership whose goal is that all parties feel positive about the outcome.
- Familiarize yourself with both the rights of parents/guardians and the responsibilities of the school system with regard to the provision of services. Don’t leave it up to someone else. Be personally educated and responsible.
- Arrive for meetings on time, organized and prepared. Have questions ready.
- Be assertive, not aggressive. If you are not sure of the distinction between the two, check a few dictionary definitions. Assertive is generally defined as being resolute and confident, whereas aggression is defined as hostile or destructive behavior caused by frustration. Assertive means being informed, focused, tenacious and firm, but respectful. It’s much more likely you’ll be heard when communicating in this manner than when you are in the attack mode, where the listener’s natural tendency will be to tune out/avoid/defend and/or engage in similar reciprocal behavior – none of which will be productive. Avoid putting team members on the spot or consciously embarrassing them.
- Know what you want to accomplish and come prepared. Explain concerns clearly, without unnecessary jargon. Be clear about the child’s strengths and challenges, learning style, and what strategies may be more effective to help him learn and grow. Present specific examples; be able to back up your statements with facts, such as professional assessments and recommendations. Check for comprehension often.
- Schedule meetings allowing enough time for adequate discussion of the issues, or schedule several shorter meetings. Rushing through too many items in too little time increases opportunities for misunderstanding and dissatisfaction, and almost guarantees that future meetings will be necessary. One professional negotiator put it this way: “You may have the watch, but I have the time. I can drink as much tea or coffee as the next person.”
- Keep a check on your emotions: learn how to discuss, disagree and reason with others to accomplish your goals.
- Base decisions on the child’s need, not in response to the personalities or interpersonal skills of team members.
- Accept that a team member may have a differing point of view, but still hold the child’s best interests in mind. No one is always right or always wrong.
- Establish a rapport and maintain communication throughout the year. Share information freely. Return calls promptly, write notes often.
- Maintain good written records, keeping documents in a chronological binder, notes from phone conversations in a folder. Record date, time, to whom you spoke, what was requested, actions promised, conclusions reached. If you are not a good note-taker, record conversations and meetings (informing the other party that you are doing so). Don’t rely on memory, no matter how sharp you think you are. Phone calls and emails and details pile up, and you may need to refer to specific details of these conversations at some point.
- Follow through and follow up. Always supply what is asked of you in an efficient and accurate manner. When following up on action promised by others, be persistent but reasonable.
- Express appreciation for all efforts large and small.
- Parents/caregivers must respect that teachers and administrators are responsible for the educational programs of many other children besides your own. They may not always be able to respond to requests immediately. Educators/service providers must set and adhere to reasonable response timeframes.
- Educators/service providers must recognize the parent as the expert in understanding the child and how he functions.
- Be realistic about what constitutes a crisis. Only call an emergency IEP meeting when dangerous consequences are imminent. Parents/guardians have the right to call an IEP meeting at any time during the year but whenever possible, should keep scheduling demands reasonable.
- Parents/guardians who decide that due process is warranted must say so honestly, without using it as a threat, so that educators may respond in a manner that avoids such a step if possible.
- All team members must recognize that district policy or state law does not override federal law. Identify and discuss discrepancies.
- All team members should be pro-active in seeking advice from other professionals or requesting further evaluations in areas of need or uncertainty. Always remember that there are no stupid questions if you don’t know the answer, and that most people like to help others. Ask colleagues, caseworkers, doctors, teachers, family members, neighbors and friends for information, support, suggestions, help with tasks. There is rarely any harm in asking for help (the worst anyone can say is no, and even then, you’ve lost nothing), and even more rarely any advantage in trying to handle thorny problems alone.
Respecting and valuing all individuals as individuals must be the cornerstone of all learning, throughout formal education and beyond. Understand the gravity of the decisions being made about this one child. They will affect his success or failure not just the current year, but for all the years ahead.
Excerpted from 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition, by Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk. (2010, Future Horizons). Silver Medal winner, 2010 Independent Publishers Book Awards, Learning magazine Teacher’s Choice Award.
Four-time ForeWord Book of the Year medalist/finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of one of several award-winning books on autism.
Veronica Zysk is Product Development Manager at Think Social Publishing, and former managing editor of Autism Asperger’s Digest, winner of multiple awards for excellence. She has co-authored or edited more than a dozen books on autism and Asperger’s, working with many noted authors including Temple Grandin and Michelle Garcia Winner.