The Denver Autism Wheel

Advocating for your child’s education

Posted on: July 12, 2010

Finding a school that supplies what your child needs can be challenging when those needs differ from the norm. I can only speak for our experience with the public schools, but finding a good elementary school fit for Chris was a challenge. Our first neighborhood school accidentally gave us an excellent second grade teacher, so for one year, we thought we were OK in the classroom, but getting cooperation from the SpEd staff proved impossible. Eventually, we ended up moving Chris to a new school. His current environment is wonderful, even beyond my expectations. But the process of finding that good fit took some digging, research and interviewing. The main idea of this blog is to help parents find the best environment for their kids to achieve success. Autism isn’t one-size-fits-all, so I don’t expect that everybody who uses the same methods will end up in the same place, particularly those of you with high school students 😉

But anyway, here’s what we found out:

#1 Get a diagnosis: Chris was a “preschooler with a disability” until he was 6. We waited to get a diagnosis until then because the school didn’t require one until Chris was 6. I think they figure any regular development (read: stuff any child would grow out of) will have happened by 6. Anyway, beyond 6, without a diagnosis, the school stops providing assistance. If your child is under 6 and has a paraprofessional in class with him/her some, most or all of the time, and you’re not sure whether you should get a diagnosis, talk to your pediatrician, talk to his/her teacher, talk to anybody who has spent a considerable amount of time with your child. And listen to your gut. If you suspect autism, ask that question specifically. Many parents wait to get a diagnosis, particularly if their child is highly functional (that is, seems to be able to get along reasonably well in the classroom). Others wait because they don’t want to face the reality of autism. There’s still a lot of mystery and fear that goes along with it. Understand this: autism is not mental retardation, it’s not a reflection on your parenting skills: “autism” is a diagnostic tool you can use to get your child the kind of help he/she needs to be a successful student. In some ways, it’s no different from having an eye exam and finding out he/she needs glasses. If it helps him/her succeed, get the glasses!

In our case, get the diagnosis because then, you can get the IEP (individual education plan). Without one, your child gets no more or less than anybody else in the classroom. With one, your child has access to the help that can mean the difference between success and failure, like extra time to answer questions, handwriting assistance, a quiet room to complete work…

#2: You don’t have to go it alone. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel (hence the blog). We started this adventure without knowing what kind of voice we had, what kind of advocacy we could do. If you find yourself at odds with the school system, the first call you should make is to the Autism Society (we link to it in our Advocacy section) tell them who you are and the trouble you’re having. The second call is to your county’s ARC (also linked under Advocacy). Can’t say enough positive things about them. They will provide you with an education advocate for free to help advise you on your rights and responsibilities. They will go through your IEP to make sure the school is being fair to your child and creating measurable goals (we once had a goal on an IEP that stayed there for a year and a half with no progress, a big fat no-no, and a warning sign to parents that the SpEd staff is not taking proper care of your child, and that the school is not properly accountable for his or her success).

#3: If the principal is an advocate for your child, you’re in good shape. Our former principal was an advocate for the status quo. He did his best not to make waves but ended up not siding with us. It was more important to him to keep his teachers and staff happy than to engage with parents. Most principals are cordial to parents during events at the school, but if you want to find out where you stand, see what happens when you ask the principal to talk to your child’s teacher or para about improving something. If you notice a change, great! We were asked whether he could help us choose a different school for Chris to attend. Seriously. That’s how bad it was. I know it sounds extreme, but elementary schools can be very closed, territorial places, and parents can start to look like the enemy if they suggest alternatives or insinuate they know something better than the faculty or staff. That’s a big warning sign. As parents, we are the world’s foremost experts on our kids. That makes us a part of the education team. Period. If the school administrators look at you as adversaries, it’s a big problem.

#4: It’s not just 1 grade or 1 school. Finding a good school fit means more than just one grade or finding a good elementary school. Your child is going to be part of the education system in one district or another from Kindergarten through 12th grade. College is another story with more mobility and choice, so that’s for another day. But when you consider moving your child to a different school, you also need to consider whether the next school in that district is also a fit. Particularly with autism, you want to give your child the advantage of familiar territory and faces. The more people who know him/her, the better. If you can provide continuity in the transitions between elementary and middle school or middle school and high school, that’s ideal.

More to come…stay tuned!

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