By Elizabeth Reeve, coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)
Every day, children pour out of classrooms and head to buses, cars, and sidewalks to get home from school. At some point later in the day, most of these children will face an adult who asks them, “How was school today?”
For a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), that simple question may be unanswerable. A parent’s personal memories about the school bus, the lunchroom, and the horrors of gym class may not be helpful in understanding the school experiences of his or her child with ASD. How can teachers and schools ensure that the school experience for kids with autism spectrum disorders is the best it can be? As a professional who works with families and children on the autism spectrum on a daily basis, I suggest that good communication is the single most influential factor impacting an ASD child’s day at school.
Communication is the key because children on the autism spectrum are more vulnerable than their neurotypical peers. This vulnerability arises from the inability to communicate their needs, express themselves, and report to others what they feel. Vulnerability leads to fears, anxiety, insecurity, and behavioral dysregulation. Strategies that increase students’ ability to communicate provide them with tools to decrease their vulnerability and improve their ability to cope with the stress and anxiety of the day.
When parents or caregivers think about or feel their child’s vulnerability, they also have significant anxiety. This anxiety may drive their behavior, including increasing or improving communication with the school. Finally, it comes full circle with the teacher. Anxious students and anxious parents will make an anxious teacher. Communication decreases anxiety!
How can the teacher help improve communication?
Whether you are a mainstream classroom teacher or a special education teacher in a segregated classroom, you may want to start by considering the parent and not the student. Good communication occurs when there is mutual understanding of what to expect. If possible, start with the following basics:
- Know how and when to communicate with the caregiver. For example, what level of behavior requires an immediate call versus a note or an email? Remember that this varies incredibly from student to student and may not be consistent with school policy. If the school requires a call to a parent for physical aggression, make sure the parent knows this is school policy.
- Discuss preferred frequency of communication at the beginning of the school year. Some families prefer weekly summaries, and others prefer day-to day logs.
- Discuss who should do the communicating. One family may prefer that the paraprofessional or education assistant communicate while another feels that only the “teacher” should be communicating with them.
- Set firm rules and guidelines about how the parent can communicate with you when needed. Do not suggest email if you only check your email periodically.
- Do not rely on the student as the communicator. Even a high-functioning child should never be held responsible for teacher-parent communication.
- Review how you have effectively and ineffectively communicated in the past. Taking stock of past mistakes is difficult but useful in order to change future behavior.
- Ask the family to share any family stresses that impact the student. Understanding family stress can help a teacher gauge how much day-to-day communication the family can handle without feeling overwhelmed.
- Know when you are burned out. Communicate to your own supervisors when your job no longer brings you joy. Teaching ASD children takes exceptional patience and strength.
How can the parent help?
The first job of parents is to reflect on their own worries and anxiety and try to understand them. We are often unrealistic in our expectation of others to meet our needs. Expecting a teacher to understand how to communicate with you as an individual is asking a lot of someone who does not know you! Ask yourself the following questions as you prepare to meet with your child’s teacher:
- What type of communication has worked for me as a parent in the past? Do you like to know details or the big picture?
- Why do I need to communicate with the teacher? Are you trying to understand what happens to your child, or are you trying to control the situation?
- Do I have realistic expectations for communication? Have you asked the teacher to call during work hours when you’re never available?
- Have I shared with the teacher important past experiences I have had that may influence my communication style? If you have had previous negative experiences with other schools, share them in an open and nonthreatening manner.
How can we help our students/children?
Children and adolescents with ASD have a wide range of communication strengths and weaknesses. It is crucial to understand the individual needs of each child with autism. One common error in dealing with higher functioning kids to is to assume that the lack of a response, or a nonsensical response, represents refusal to communicate rather than an inability to communicate. Lower functioning students will need more comprehensive speech support and perhaps augmentative communication devices. Remember that the power to communicate effectively will decrease the child’s anxiety, improve behavior, and boost self-confidence. Consider the following tips:
- Use social skills groups with higher functioning kids to improve pragmatic use of language.
- Remember that a delay in an answer in a verbal child may represent a processing delay or anxiety and does not always represent refusal to respond.
- We all lose our verbal skills when anxious. Remember the last time you gave a big speech or presentation? Kids with ASD are no different—expect abilities to wax and wane depending on the circumstances.
- Highly verbal children with ASD may be socially intrusive and disruptive to their peers. Have them develop a code word that someone can use to cue them to stop talking.
- Communication includes the ability to understand language, not just speak. If a high-functioning child falls behind while listening, teach him or her a signal to let the teacher know. One example is raising the left hand rather than the right hand.
- If you are a parent, make sure you know your child’s detailed schedule during the day. Then, do not ask, “What did you do in school today,” but, “What did you do in [a certain activity or subject]?”
Parenting and educating a child with an autism spectrum disorder is a challenge. With good communication, teachers, parents, and students will all win. Good luck!
Elizabeth Reeve, M.D., is a child psychiatrist in Minnesota, and her clinical work focuses primarily on children and adults with developmental disabilities. In addition to her research and patient care, Elizabeth is involved in teaching, speaks in the community to educate others in the field of developmental disabilities, and helps young adults with ASD transition into college and the work force. She is coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents).
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