Communication with school: teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

Communication with school: teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

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How good communication supports your child with autism spectrum disorder

When your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), good communication between you and your child's school and staff is especially important. It's part of creating a shared understanding of your goals, your child's goals and his specific needs.

It's also part of building a positive relationship with your child's school. And when you have a positive relationship with the school, it'll be easier to speak up for your child if you need to.

Why the school needs your input
Your knowledge of your child makes you a great resource for school staff. You might be able to help staff with information about:

  • how your child handles different situations and tasks
  • what helps your child to cope in different situations
  • what other people in your child's day-to-day life can do to ease the challenges of school.

Who to communicate with at your child's school

Secondary schools can be big places, with many more staff than primary schools.

Here are some of the people you might need to be in touch with regularly:

  • teachers - home-room teacher and subject teachers
  • principal, assistant principal or year coordinator
  • school office manager and administrators
  • aides or other support or case workers
  • school nurses, psychologists, social workers or counsellors
  • student support or welfare coordinators.

Depending on the school, you and your child might be given a special contact or support person at the school - often the student welfare coordinator, home-room teacher or year coordinator. You'll probably do most of your communication with this person.

Some parents like to communicate with the school via email, so they can think before responding to issues. Others like to discuss things in person or by phone. Another option is using a communication book that stays with your child, and you and the contact person use it to write daily or weekly updates. Your child's school will appreciate knowing what works best for you.

Things to talk about with the school

Some of the things you might want to talk about with the school include the following:

  • Teaching methods - for example, do teachers use visual cues and other teaching tools that cater for the visual strengths of many students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Cues and tools might include printed handouts or written instructions on the whiteboard.
  • Curriculum - for example, are there compulsory or elective subjects that cater to your child's interests? Are subjects taught in a way that builds on your child's strengths?
  • Classroom set-up - for example, what do teachers do to cut down on distractions and noise levels to cater for the sensory needs of students with ASD?
  • Emotional strategies - for example, what strategies do teachers use when they have to deal with challenging behaviour in the classroom?
  • Change - for example, how will teachers let your child know about any changes to routine, like new events, excursions and so on?
  • Communication modes - for example, how does the school support students who have trouble communicating verbally or who are non-verbal communicators?
  • Student aides or supports - for example, how are aides trained? Does the school match genders of students and aides? And can you ask for a different aide?
  • Flexibility - for example, can teachers can be flexible in letting your child finish schoolwork or assignments in non-traditional ways, like recording an assignment as an audio file rather than writing it down?

Working with school staff to plan your child's learning

Many schools have formal planning processes that make it easier for you to manage relationships and communication at school.

One of these is your child's individual learning plan. The teachers develop this plan, but will want to meet with you to:

  • get to know your child's learning needs
  • set goals for your child and talk about strategies that might achieve these goals
  • think about how they can support your child in curriculum areas
  • keep a close eye on your child's progress.

Many parents find that these meetings are great for working as a team with school staff to support their child's educational goals.

Where possible and appropriate, your child should know about and take part in some of these meetings. This can help your child to start taking some responsibility for her own learning and for working out what she needs to learn.

You can find more information about school planning processes in your state or territory on these government webpages:

  • ACT Government Education Directorate - Disability education
  • NSW Department of Education - Disability, learning and support
  • NT Government - About special education and disability
  • Queensland Department of Education and Training - Students with disability
  • SA Government - Curriculum and learning: Learning plans
  • Tasmanian Department of Education - Students with disability
  • Victorian Department of Education and Training - Support for children with special needs
  • WA Department of Education - Children with special learning needs.

Communication in difficult situations

There might be times when you have to communicate with the school about difficult or sensitive issues.

This might happen if:

  • your child is being bullied
  • you have a different opinion from the teachers about the best teaching methods or curriculum for your child
  • your child has been behaving in challenging ways.

In any tricky situation, it's always best to communicate with the school. Talking through your concerns and documenting them objectively can help to clear up the situation and keep everyone calm. You can also talk through strategies that might help resolve the issue.

Any discussions you have should focus on the behaviour in the situation, rather than on a particular person.

Conflict with the school
If you have a conflict with the school, the first step is making a formal appointment with the responsible person to talk about the issue. You might also like to involve the person at the school who knows most about your child.

You might be able to use the skills and expertise of a parent advocate. Parent advocates know a lot about the rights of children with additional needs, particularly in relation to education. With an advocate's help, you could negotiate with the school for the best outcome for your child. You can find a parent advocate through autism support groups, websites and parent communities.

Once you and the school have discussed your concerns, the next step is giving the school time to investigate and do something about the situation.

Organise at least one follow-up meeting so the school can explain what it has done and what has happened as a result. The focus of these meetings should be on the behaviour in the situation, not the person.

Challenging behaviour
If the school has asked to meet with you because your child is behaving in challenging ways, it's best to listen to the facts and make sure you completely understand what has happened.

The school's role is to support students, so it will usually want to find a way to help your child. Meeting with the school to talk about your child's behaviour is a chance to be a positive part of the solution.

As parents, once we've decided on the best options for our child, we need to be persistent in using the help available, departmental policies and guidelines, advocates, advisors and consultants, to negotiate with the school on the best individualised program it can offer. We also need to understand each other's point of view and the conditions under which the school works. There needs to be a level of give and take. And at all times, it's important to let the school know that we appreciate the good job they're doing.
- Sarah, mother of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)