8 Things I Wish My Kid’s School Understood About Autism

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1. Shit happens, and sometimes so do meltdowns.

Meltdowns are scary enough for my family, even after years of dealing with them, and I understand that they are challenging for teachers and staff. But at the same time, meltdowns are a part of life on the spectrum and, while it’s important to do everything we can to minimize the things that contribute to them, we also need to recognize that sometimes they just happen.

Meltdowns aren’t tantrums; they are the equivalent of a pot of water reaching its boiling point and boiling over. My daughter can’t control these meltdowns and it’s important not to shame or otherize her. Matter-of-fact explanations and redirection of her classmates work much better than any attempt to shame her into compliance.

2. Silence is as much of a behavior as a meltdown.

I understand why a child sitting quietly at her desk isn’t perceived as a problem. But when my daughter shuts down, nothing comes in or goes out. She examines her pencil in exquisite detail while the rest of the class does their math work, and unless someone is next to her to ask her if she needs help or is stuck, she will let entire class periods go by silently, and she certainly won’t ask to use the bathroom or take a break (even if they are nicely provided for in her Individualized Education Program). This is why having a special education aide with her is so critical for her academic progress and emotional support.

3. You only see the tip of the iceberg.

At my daughter’s first school, the special education staff told me that her daily meltdowns at home were a sign that she wasn’t getting what she needed at school. She was shutting down at school and then exploding at home, and the solution had to come from the school.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, schools fall into the trap of assuming they know everything about a child and dismissing input from parents. Even though children may seem okay at school, they often hold back their emotional reactions to process at home with their parents. If educators want to help a child at school, they need to know how that child reacts to school at home.

4. Autistic kids are trying to communicate with you in their own way.

Educators are experts in their subject matter, but it’s just as important that they listen to their students as lecture them. This is true for all children but when you add autism into the mix, listening becomes even more important — including looking for non-verbal cues and signals.

When my daughter began school, her teacher became so tuned in to her that he could look at her from across the room and recognize that she was on the edge of a meltdown. Her signs are small — things like holding her hands up near her chest like a T-rex or beginning to squeak — but they are there. In a classroom of 27 students, his attention was no small feat but it created trust between the two of them and helped him call in the special education team before a meltdown occurred in the classroom.

5. Autistic kids have different needs.

This should be a given, but I’m continuously shocked by how little educators understand autism. No matter how much they tell me they understand autism, their opinions and perspectives are continuously shaped and driven by their understanding of neurotypical kids’ needs and behaviors, not autistic kids. This creates conflict and division where they should be cooperation and unity, and it rarely gets autistic kids what they need to thrive in school.

Parents don’t become “that” parent because they want to. They became that parent because educators will not listen to what our kids needs or create programs that adequately meet their needs. If educators better educated themselves about autism before engaging with parents, everyone would benefit.

6. Autistic kids have just as much to offer as every other child.

If you saw my daughter hiding in the cafeteria and screaming because she was so terrified of giving her Antarctica presentation in front of her class, it would be easy to assume she doesn’t have much to offer. What you would be missing is that she is creative, joyful, and an amazing artist — she’s just not comfortable speaking in front of her classroom.

Many kids with autism excel at leadership. They explain technical concepts well and thrive when they are given the opportunity to instruct others. Playing to their strengths allows them to build peer relationships in ways that are less stressful to them, but educators often fail to leverage the skills and abilities autistic kids bring to the table.

7. School is the most stressful part of my daughter’s life.

Many children dislike school, but my daughter’s relationship with school is complicated. She enjoys school, and she likes her teacher and classmates, but school is an incredibly stressful part of her life. In fact, it’s the single most stressful part.

Teachers and administrators often assume my daughter will do better in school if she spends more time there. They have been very combative about allowing her to leave early in the afternoons for emotional breaks, or even for medically-prescribed therapies and appointments. In their minds, the more she is at school, the better she will do. Unfortunately, for her, the opposite is true. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to what school should look like for kids on the spectrum, but teachers and administrators need to understand the intense amount of stress that an average school day places on kids on the spectrum and to provide the services they need to minimize that stress.

8. Autistic kids grow up into autistic adults.

This sounds obvious, but often educational strategies involve isolation of children on the spectrum from their neurotypical peers. While this may seem necessary to educators, there are few autistic children who can’t benefit from at least some degree of inclusion in a general education setting and all neurotypical children benefit from interacting with their autistic peers.

When children are splintered into special education and standard classrooms, they don’t learn how to interact with each other, or to value each other’s unique talents and gifts. If we segregate autistic kids into special education classrooms, it’s unreasonable to expect them to learn how to integrate into society at large as adults.

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