The start of a new school year can feel like a clean slate for parents – a chance to get organized, start your kids off on a positive note and make plans for a year of success.
That’s especially the case for parents of children with autism, who often have multiple therapists working with their child over the summer and involved in helping things go smoothly in the fall. When that’s the case, experts say back-to-school is an ideal time for getting everyone on the same page about a child’s progress and goals.
“Building that relationship with the school usually helps with the transition for kids,” says Jenny Llorca, clinical director at Comprehensive Early Autism Services, which provides applied behavior analysis therapy for kids in multiple states including throughout southeast Michigan. “We don’t want to see them go into school and start having meltdowns and nobody knows how to help them.”
So what can parents of children with autism do to collaborate in a meaningful way with their child’s school? Consider these five tips.
1. Set up a meeting
Try to set up a meeting or phone call before the school year starts where your child’s private therapy team – ABA therapist, psychologist or other specialists – can talk informally with your child’s new teacher and special education staff about his strengths and challenges.
While it’s always helpful to involve private therapists in your child’s annual Individualized Education Program meeting, the IEP might not occur until later in the school year.
“It’s giving them a heads up about (things like) needing lots of breaks, or these are the things we’ve been doing to encourage him to get through longer periods of time,” Llorca says. “In the 10 years I’ve been working with kids with autism, I can’t cite two kids who’ve had the same learning program. They all have their own individual strengths, deficits and challenges. Being able to contact that school and to set them up for success is so important.”
2. Be a good listener
When you first meet with your child’s teacher – whether it’s before school starts or during the first few weeks – you may be tempted to launch into lengthy explanations about exactly which strategies work best for your child. But the meeting should involve lots of listening, too. Be sure to give the teacher time to share her own approach.
“Usually when we open that way, teachers are much more receptive,” Llorca says.
3. Share the positive
There’s no question that you’ll send an email or call your child’s teacher when something goes wrong or you have a concern. But you should also communicate when things are going well.
Send a quick note when your child demonstrates something he learned at school, Llorca encourages, or share the occasional update about how things are going in therapy.
“Give them the good news about what their child has been working on,” she says.
4. Don’t be deterred
Don’t let negative experiences you’ve had with the school in the past influence the new school year, Llorca notes. Start the year fresh and give each new teacher a chance.
“Even if a teacher seems very negative off the front end, that shouldn’t deter them,” she says, pointing out that many teachers are still unfamiliar with ABA therapy, for example, and might be hesitant to accept the methods you suggest. “You should never discount a teacher that comes off as short or maybe not receptive in the very beginning. Plenty have been that way then saw the benefit.”
If you still have concerns, ask for an in-person meeting or contact the school principal or district administration if needed, but don’t jump to legal action. Be persistent – but not aggressive.
“Becoming aggressive towards the school and coming in and dictating to them what they should do with your child is not the right approach. The teachers usually become much more defensive,” Llorca says. “‘I have an ABA provider and they said to do it this way.’ Teachers have gone to school, too, and they want to be able to use their bag of tricks to get kids to learn, as well. Treat them as part of the team.”
5. Be consistent
As the school routine sets in, remember to keep up the practices your child learned over the summer. Consistency is key, Llorca says. Also keep in mind that children who are prepared for a full day of school and are transitioning out of full-day ABA programming usually still continue ABA services during the school year – either in the evenings or on the weekends.
“Our goals become different,” she says, adding that her team works alongside parents to determine when a school transition is appropriate based on the child’s data and progress. “Sometimes it’s more functional life type skills, maybe helping mom or dad learn how to navigate the homework process together.”
Comprehensive Early Autism Services provides home-based services to families throughout Michigan. It also has an office at 5877 Livernois Road in Troy. For more information or to make an appointment, call 313-550-0847 or visit autismtherapymichigan.com.