Surviving School in a Nutshell

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This article was contributed by Kim Tizzard, Autism Resource Specialist and mom to a son with autism.

The beginning of a new school year has somehow snuck up on us. For many, the uncertainty of how our child’s needs will be met can be a source of angst. Like a video loop, the same thoughts would keep me up at night: Will they hear my voice when my son may not have one? If they do, how will it be interpreted? How will the IEP be implemented? What if he shuts down or has a tantrum? And the list goes on.

My son is now 18 and entering his senior year of high school (Occupational Course of Study). We have survived! I have learned along the way that 90% of my concerns were truly answerable, but so much depended on how they were communicated. So, I am imparting some of my “tried and true techniques” in the four steps below.

Step 1: Take a deep breath!

Step 2: Create your own profile of your child. I cannot tell you how many regular education teachers and related service professionals (speech and occupational therapists, art teachers, etc.) expressed their appreciation for having received this. My profile gives them a quick look at what to expect from my son. Yes, teachers should look at the IEP or IEP-at-a-glance if your child has one. But let’s be honest: sometimes this information may take a while to get into their hands. If your son or daughter does not have an IEP or 504, that is all the more reason to create a profile. Ours is called “Trevor in a Nutshell.” I send it out a few days before school starts or at the onset of a new semester with a short email of appreciation from me. I also tell teachers to feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.

Here are a couple of links to helpful profile examples:

I modeled “Trevor in a Nutshell” on a profile that a dear friend and fellow Autism Resource Specialist created for her son. It is a ONE-PAGE information sheet that includes the following:

  • Strengths, interests (usually great motivators)
  • Dislikes (example: he hates for stuff to be erased)
  • Strange and inappropriate things he may do (example: blurting out answers, holding his ears)
  • Things that are difficult

Last but not least, I list the category “What to Do,” which is a place to list some helpful hints and strategies that help his day run more smoothly. Some examples are letting him twist a straw during lectures and movement breaks every 45 minutes.

I always close with letting the “reader” know that I am available and will help anyway I can. This may be by providing visual supports such as his daily schedule, typed and placed in the front of his binder, or a social story for a portion of his day that may be difficult for him. I will say that oftentimes, we need to take it as it comes and brainstorm together – which leads us to the next step.

Step 3: Foster a good, open dialogue with teachers and staff who may have contact with your son or daughter.

The old phrase about getting more with honey than with vinegar is so true. Taking the first steps toward helping your child’s teacher understand him or her a bit better is always a good thing. I would also suggest that you then take a step back; give the staff four to six weeks to get to know your child. At that point, you could schedule a parent/ teacher conference to discuss how things are going. It can then be determined whether a few things need to be tweaked, such as on a 504, or even whether an addendum may need to occur to the IEP, if there is one in place.

Regardless of whether or not your child has a plan, some form of agreed-upon communication should be established. Examples include a communication notebook, a school agenda, or a weekly email that goes to and from school. Talk to your child’s teacher to establish a communication routine that will work for both of you. For your middle or high school student, find out what is already in place at the school. Usually teachers and staff keep a website updated with homework and test schedules.

Step 4: Take some time for yourself! Connect with others. ASNC offers parent support groups and chapters across the state; click here to find the one closest to you.

I have coached countless parents with school-age children through this process. The success rates and responses from their children’s educational teams has been overwhelmingly favorable. But occasionally, roadblocks arise. If you still feel as if your voice or your child’s voice is not being heard, then I would encourage you to contact your local Autism Resource Specialist for ideas. In addition to all being parents of children on the spectrum, we also have a combined wealth of knowledge. We are here to help.

Kim Tizzard can be reached at ktizzard@autismsociety-nc.org or 919-865-2269.

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