Many parents realize their child has some form of autism long before they begin the process of getting an official diagnosis. It can take time for parents to adjust to the reality that their children are significantly different than they expected them to be. In addition, parents may want to research the best ways to handle their child’s autism before approaching their doctors. Once they take the first step towards diagnosis, the evaluation process may take a while or they may be placed on a waiting list for evaluation.
The pre-diagnosis period can be difficult because parents have no documentation yet that their child has autism, yet the child needs services immediately in order to maximize his or her potential for success. Parents of children who have not yet received an official diagnosis often have a hard time getting their children appropriate accommodations at school. Teachers may not believe the child has autism or may think that the parent has convinced him or herself of a non-existent problem. This can be frustrating for parents because they know their children have special needs even though they can’t prove it.
Although it’s more difficult to get the accommodations your child needs without the paperwork to back you up, it’s not impossible. Rest assured that you can eventually get your child what he or she needs for academic success.
Talk to Your Child’s Teacher
Your first line of defense is to talk to your child’s teacher. As a parent of a child with autism, you’re his or her best advocate, and will need to communicate with teachers throughout your child’s school career. This is going to be true whether or not your child has an official diagnosis, so you should begin practicing your communication skills as soon as possible.
Here’s some practical tips that can help your meeting with your child’s teacher go smoothly.
- Approach the teacher as a partner in helping your child, not as the enemy. If you talk as if you are telling the teacher how to do his or her job, you’re just setting yourself up for a conflict. That’s not what you want. You and the teacher should both be on the side of helping your child learn. So come from the perspective of “this is what has worked when I work with my child” rather than telling the teacher what to do.
- Be open to listening to the teacher’s point of view. Your goal should be to have a dialogue that results in getting your child what he or she needs for success. Even if you think the teacher is completely wrong, listen to what he or she has to say. You may want to summarize the teacher’s points before making your own so that the teacher feels heard as well. Once you’ve heard the teacher, you can explain why you disagree and conversation will be more productive.
- Bring any “official” documentation that you have. For example, if your child’s pediatrician has noted that your child seems to have learning differences and that he or she recommends testing, bring a copy of the note. That way you can show the teacher what some of the concerns are and help him or her be aware that your child may have special educational needs.
- Express confidence in your child’s abilities. Don’t make the conversation all about what your child can’t do. Otherwise the teacher may think you are just an overly critical parent and dismiss your suggestions. Make it clear that you believe your child can succeed.
If you are positive, open to dialogue and clear about what you believe your child needs, you have a better chance of success. Of course, if your child is in a large classroom, the teacher may not feel able to address your child’s special needs, especially without an official IEP stating that he or she is legally bound to. If this happens, you have to consider what is best for your child. You may need to temporarily homeschool him or her or request that your child be put into a smaller classroom. If you decide this is what’s best for your child, do it! However, you should never threaten a teacher with this possibility in order to get his or her cooperation. Making threats shuts down dialogue and makes it harder for you to get what your child needs.
How to Approach School Administrators
If you aren’t satisfied after talking to your child’s teacher, your next step is to make an appointment to see your child’s principal. School administrators are powerful allies to have because they can make school-wide decisions on your child’s behalf. However, they also have to follow state educational guidelines and may be more focused on the official diagnosis than your child’s classroom teacher.
When talking to school administrators, keep the following in mind:
- School administrators’ goals usually have to do with making sure the school as a whole is effective. When you talk to administrators about your child’s situation, it’s important to frame it in terms of how accommodations will be helpful to all the children in your child’s classroom. For example, you might want to point out that accommodations will reduce unwanted and distracting behaviors and that your child’s success will reflect well on the teacher and help the school look good.
- School administrators may be bound by laws related to documented disabilities. Administrators are responsible for making sure that the school follows all laws related to giving students with disabilities equal access to education. For this reason, they may not be able to do as much for you without an official diagnosis as you would like. However, they may be able to set up a meeting for you and your child with the school counselor in order to expedite the process of getting your child onto an Individual Education Plan (IEP).
- School administrators have a lot on their plates. It’s important to figure out exactly what you want to communicate before seeing the principal so that you can keep the meeting focused. School administrators appreciate this and are more likely to want to help if they know you are respectful of their time.
- School administrators don’t like playing “parent” to their teachers. It’s important to make sure that you approach the administrator as a potential ally in helping your child excel rather than trying to “make” the teacher cooperate by going to his or her boss.
Making Accommodations at Home
Even if the teacher and the principal are unable or unwilling to give your child the accommodations you ask for, don’t lose hope. Regardless of your child’s official diagnosis, you can still make accommodations for him or her at home. Don’t get scared off by the formal nature of the word “accommodations;” it simply means that you can set your home up in a way that helps your child succeed and makes it less likely that he or she will behave in a negative manner.
Think about the things you wish your child’s teacher would do. Once your child has an official diagnosis, it may be easier to get the teacher to do some of these things—but you can still do them at home. For example, if you know your child needs a visual schedule in order to be able to function appropriately, create one on your computer and send it with him to school (and have a copy hanging up at home.) If your child needs a break every 20 minutes in order to be able to focus, you can give her those breaks at home while working on homework even if the school refuses to do so.
Parenting a child with autism does take extra time and effort. Some parents may feel overwhelmed and unable to do as much as they need to. It’s okay to be imperfect at giving your child accommodations. Just do your best to use your knowledge of your child’s habits, behaviors, interests and needs to help him or her succeed. Remember that you have expert knowledge about how to help your child because of your status as his or her parent. Speak with authority and compassion when you talk with teachers, do what you can at home, and view this pre-diagnosis period as a “dry run” for the advocacy you will be doing on your child’s behalf throughout the rest of his or her school career.
I am a a former special education teacher who specializes in autism. I blog and speak regularly about my experiences as a person with Aspergers. For more information about me, please visit http://www.sja-advocacy.com.