Dear Parent of a Student with Autism,
Welcome to kindergarten! When any parent of a 5 year old sends their student to school on the first day of class, it’s a momentous occasion full of anxiety and emotion. This is even more true for the parent of a student with autism.
Let me tell you a little about me. For five years, I have had the autism “cluster” of students in my general education kindergarten classroom in an urban public school. I worked at a school that put all the students with autism in one kindergarten class, because there was only one special education assistant per grade. Over the years, I have taught about 20 different students on the spectrum, with varying levels of service and time in my classroom, and collaborated with a stellar special education team that has taught me so many valuable strategies and tools.
A big part of being a kindergarten teacher is helping not only these students that are place in your room, but also parents like you. It is HARD to adjust to kindergarten. It is very difficult for any parent to let go of their child into the big scary world of elementary school. Parents of special education students like you are a brave, strong, out-spoken, but yet delicate breed. I was constantly impressed by their undying advocacy for their kids. I have nothing but deep respect for parents raising kids with special needs.
There are some things I wish I could have said to these parents over the years. At times, it feels like there are things I am “not allowed” to say in a public school setting, as the general education student. S0 here is my open letter to parents of students with autism.
- I know your child is not like any other student with autism.
“If you know one student with autism, you know one student with autism” is a common saying in the autism world. This is undoubtedly true and I believe this about your child. He may remind me of a student I had several years ago in the way he flaps his hands. Her fine motor challenges may be familiar to me. But please don’t worry, I will treat your child as a unique individual because I know he or she is just that- unique, unlike any other student. I will approach them with my “bag of tricks,” but will be completely willing to throw my tricks out the window to find ones that work for your kid. I will not lump him into a label, a stereotype, a “cluster,” or a disability.
- Please, please, please trust me.
I know we are basically strangers. I know that I just walked into your lives and now will be directing the education of your child for 7 hours per day. I wasn’t there when you got the diagnosis. I wasn’t there when you struggled through years of therapies. I wasn’t there when your child had his amazing breakthroughs and monumental accomplishments. But please, trust me to do what I see is best for your child during our school day. I’m not asking you to stop advocating for your child, because that is your right and responsibility as the parent. I’m asking you to see me as a fellow advocate, not an obstacle or adversary. By day two of kindergarten, I already love your child and will forever care about him or her. I actually request to have the students with autism in my classroom, because I love working with them. I love their challenges and strengths. I love figuring them out. We are in this together for the next nine months.
- Kindergarten is very different than ECFE or ECSE.
Most of my students with autism were diagnosed early (thanks to a great pediatrician, usually), and have been in therapy and Early Childhood Special Education, sometimes for several years. For those families, they are often unprepared for the changes that elementary school can bring. ECFE classes usually offer tiny class sizes, with great teacher to student ratios. They offer constant, daily communication about all aspects of the students’ progress, challenges, and accomplishments. Then, all of sudden, their child is placed in a class with 25 students, half a dozen who have other special needs, others who don’t speak English, others who have behavioral problems, others who are advanced far beyond kindergarten. I often find that those first few months of kindergarten are a culture shock for parents of students with autism. They’re not used to seeing so many children in a classroom and worry that their child will get lost in the shuffle. They’re not used to only receiving weekly emails, when they have been getting daily updates for years. They’re not used to being the parent with the child who is “different.” I beg these parents to let go of their expectations of the teacher, class, and school. Just embrace this new adventure, and as I mentioned earlier, make your default mode be to trust the professionals who are caring for and teaching your child.
- I will fight for your kid at school.
I am now on your team. You are the ring leader, I’m your right hand man. At school, even though most staff are professionals who are looking out for the best of the children, students with autism still need an advocate. I hope at your first IEP meeting, you feel this team of school advocates supporting you and your child. I promise to tell the gym teachers about your son’s struggle with following rules and taking turns. I promise to tell the librarian about your daughters occasional vocal outbursts, so she doesn’t get reprimanded. I promise to work out a testing plan for your son so that he gets extra time in a place with no distractions. I have a dozen conversations on your child’s behalf each week that you’ll never know about. Again, please trust me that I’m looking out for him.
- I’m a trained kindergarten teacher, but not an autism expert.
I wish I had countless hours to dedicate to the study of autism. It is fascinating to me, and I wish I was up on all the research, strategies, and tools to help your child. But what I lack in knowledge, I make up for in collaboration. I have a great support system of professionals in the school that know autism and special education better than I ever will. I’m in constant contact with the autism teacher, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, social worker, case manager, adaptive gym teacher, and others. Please remember that there is a village here helping your child.
- I will ALWAYS care about your child.
Seriously. Always. I sometimes sit at my desk and watch him, imagining what he will be like at 21 years old. Or 50. Will he become independent? Will he drive? Will he have a job? Will he get married? And I hope for the best for him. I dream for him too. I dream of the day he has the small victories. The day he can make a true friend or express himself in words or writing. The day he holds his pencil correctly or appropriately takes turns in a game without a meltdown. Please don’t lose contact after kindergarten is done. Let me know the small victories, because in my heart I feel completely invested in his success.
Teachers, what else do you wish you could tell parents of special needs students?
Parents, what else do you wish teacher could have told you about kindergarten?
Anyone, go hug a teacher! 🙂