For many parents, the first few days of school are about shiny new shoes, clean faces and a social media post about how they’ve grown. However, if you’re a parent of an autistic child, those first few days are often filled with anxiety as your child makes their way into a new classroom with a new teacher who may know very little about the challenges they face.
Teaching a large group of children is not an easy task, nor is it for the faint hearted. Those who teach are incredibly brave, strong, passionate and dedicated individuals who make an amazing difference. Great teachers work tirelessly to create a challenging, nurturing environment for their pupils.
But not all teachers are familiar with autism—at least not in the way parents of an autistic child are. You are the expert on your child. You know what triggers them, causes challenging or disruptive behaviours, what elicits a positive response, what they find stressful and what triggers them.
It is important you pass this information on to a teacher, so they are equipped to help your child. Here are the twelve things you may want to say to your child’s teacher to facilitate effective communication between all three of you.
My child’s self-esteem is fragile. One of the hardest things about living with people's preconceptions about autism is that children are often remembered by their meltdowns rather than what they’re good at. Like every other child at school, they are struggling to grow up with a positive sense of self. Please praise them regularly and let them know all the things that make them awesome. Help them to understand their meltdowns in terms of the triggers and work together to manage them. Recognise them as a whole person with a unique personality rather than a set of symptoms or behaviours. When you appreciate and build on the strengths, interests and talents of my autistic child, you will develop and strengthen their confidence and self-esteem.
All autistic people share certain difficulties but being autistic will affect them in different ways, which is why autism is often described as ‘a spectrum’. All children on the spectrum learn and develop and, with the right support, they can flourish! Even if you have had autistic kids in your classes before, please recognise that mine might be totally different. Let me tell you the main things they are currently struggling with and their strengths and coping mechanisms.
Sometimes when I receive feedback about my child, I may explain their behaviour or why they acted in a certain way. This doesn’t mean I am making excuses for my child or condoning any behaviour you may be trying to correct or improve. All I am doing is trying to help you understand my child better so you can target the underlying issue. You have my support. I want you both to succeed.
Autistic children need clear, direct instructions rather than comments. Please be very specific when talking to my child. For example, “You didn’t tidy your table” is a statement and it won’t prompt action from my child. “Tidy your table now, please” communicates exactly what you want them to do. Don’t invite them, tell them directly. If you ask, “Would you like to read the next paragraph in the book?” don’t be surprised or upset if they interpret that question literally and say no!
Sensory issues are often a huge part of life with autism so when my child starts to act differently, scream, act aggressively or get distracted, please look at what’s going on in the surroundings.
Are the lights too bright? Is the room too noisy? Are they so overwhelmed by what’s going on that they feel threatened? Having a safe space they can go to can allow them to reset their overwhelmed senses. This will give you time to adjust the environment which could help them to settle again and prevent challenging behaviours, safeguarding everyone.
Autistic children often find it difficult to understand and manage their feelings. Their hyper and hypo sensitivity to physical space and social situations means that they can quickly go from being ok to being overwhelmed by their emotions in a matter of seconds. Expect meltdowns! They’re a regular part of my child’s day. Prepare to have a safe space or a routine you can use to help them get over their meltdown.
I know you will have a classroom reward system and a set of rules for everyone to follow. Rules are really important, and my child should follow them too. However, I know they will get anxious and freeze up if they’re afraid of being punished. Whereas if they are given a reward for something they did well, they might be inspired to work hard and keep going!
Positive reinforcement makes such a difference for autistic children, so please try and catch them doing something good. Praise them when they act appropriately or learn a new skill but be very specific about exactly what behaviour they’re being praised for.
Particularly when it comes to verbal speech, autistic children need more time to process what they hear. They can easily be overloaded by too much information at one time. In school, so many of the lessons will feature a list of instructions and tasks that they need to complete. Please don’t stack questions on top of each other; ask them one at a time.
If my child doesn’t respond to something you say immediately, that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t listening or didn’t hear you. They may need several seconds to process your questions and commands. If you feel you need to repeat yourself, don’t rephrase; say what you did the first time. If you rephrase what you are saying, the aural processing needs to start again. Give one direction at a time. Multiple instructions can be too much to handle. Quietly repeat directions to my child after they have been given to the rest of the class.
Although you are already skilled at creating structure and managing the school day, a change in routine for my child can be very anxiety-inducing. Letting my child know ahead of time that lunch is going to be later than usual or that there’s going to be a school assembly gives them the heads-up that they need to mentally prepare.
Similarly, autistic children tend to struggle with processing transitions so five- and two-minute warnings before changing activities can really ease transitions into slick moves. These can be managed even better with visual indicators of some sort, like a clock, timer, “warning” card or, even better, a visual timetable.
Please teach social skills to both my child and the other students so they can grow together. The sad reality is that children often pick on people whose behaviour they don’t understand. When my child is not in the room, please provide the other students with an age-appropriate explanation of autism. Tell them why my child might behave differently, need extra help, or say things that might seem strange to them. Teach them the skills to interact confidently with my child and provide support for my child to do the same. Society is not homogenous, and these are skills for life.
Please stand up for my child if they report being picked on or if you see other students antagonising them. Many schools have zero-tolerance bullying policies but sometimes those rules go unenforced. Please don’t let that happen in your class. Use these opportunities to teach and reinforce those social skills.
Social stories can help my child to develop greater social understanding. Help my child to have successful breaks and lunchtimes by planning ahead and making sure they have somewhere to go if there is a problem. If you haven’t used social stories before, here’s a link to explore.
I know that every lesson can’t be tailored to my child’s special interest but valuing the things they care about is a great motivator – for behaviour and for learning. Please think about how you can incorporate their intense interest into lessons. There are lots of resources available, so you don’t have to do all the legwork. For example, Minecraft has an education edition.
“I need good news, please remember to share positives with me – I want to know the bad and the good!”
As a parent of an autistic child, communicating with my child’s teacher is challenging because I expect to be having a difficult conversation. If you have any questions or concerns about my child, don’t hesitate or be afraid to tell me about them. I appreciate the feedback about my child and find it valuable.
However, focusing on what my child can’t do makes the atmosphere negative and demotivates me. Let’s talk about the positives as well; the progress, the achievements and everything that makes my child special. If my child has had a good day, please let me know because I’d like the chance to celebrate the wins!
Why not share this blog post with your child’s new teacher as a starting point? You could print it off and take it along to your first support plan meeting.
At Clinical Partners our specialist clinicians have years of experience supporting children and adults with autism. To find out more about what’s available, visit our autism hub, listen to the latest podcast in our autism masterclass series for parents or call the team on 0203 326 9160.