Special Education Instruction

Advocating at school on behalf of children with autism can be so frustrating that it’s like hitting your head against a brick wall. In fact, it’s a glimpse into what it must be like to have autism… you know what you want to communicate, but you just can’t seem to get your message through to the people who need to hear it. It is no wonder that people with autism often hit their heads against brick walls or with their fists out of sheer frustration, since one of their main difficulties is their communication skills.Advocating is all about communicating for others who can’t communicate their needs for themselves. Much of your frustration as an advocate can be alleviated if you gain the skills and the knowledge to be an effective advocate.Knowledge is PowerFirst, advocates/parents need to be knowledgeable about the child’s disability and how it affects their learning and well-being while they are at school. Since no child with autism is just like another child with autism, parents need to educate the school staff about the specifics of their child’s autism.For example, some children with autism seek out loud noises, while others are unable to tolerate loud noises. Some children may like specific types of noises like music or the sound of the toilet flushing, but can’t tolerate loud noises like alarm bells or blenders. If the school staff are told facts like these about the child, they can put accommodations in place to prevent triggers that may cause a meltdown, or they can use sounds that the child likes as a reward for good work. This is just one example of how seemingly insignificant information can make a huge difference for a child with autism while he/she is at school.Second, advocates need to be knowledgeable about the Education Act, especially the regulations which mandate the provision of special education programs and services. They should learn about their school district’s Special Education Plan. They should also educate themselves on what the Human Rights Code has to say about the Duty to Accommodate students with disabilities.And third, advocates need to learn how to advocate effectively. Verbal and written communication skills, negotiation skills, and documentation skills all come into play.Prepare a Plan for AdvocatingWrite a vision statement – describe how you would like to see your child in the future… be realistic: “My child will be a contributing member of society, working and raising a family.” or “My child will be living in a community group home where he will be happy and healthy and have the ability to participate in a variety of activities.” Always remember that it’s all about your child and his/her future. Put aside any personality conflicts that you might encounter along the advocacy journey and stay focused on the needs of your child.
Write a mission statement- your emotional commitment: “My mission is to obtain a good quality education for my child so that he will have a good life. I will master the information and skills required to be an effective advocate.” Advocating for your child will be an emotional roller coaster. Sometimes you will feel as if you are making headway, and other times you will feel as if all your efforts are in vain. It is important to stay on course and stay focused.
Set goals for yourself as an advocate – set timelines for yourself to improve your knowledge in the various areas listed above, but don’t become so consumed in advocating that you forget to live your life. Maintain a balance.
Prepare a Statement of Needs – write down everything you know about your child. Think about his/her likes, dislikes, strengths, interests, sensory issues, food issues, safety issues, social skills, communications skills, inappropriate behaviour, self-help skills, what causes melt downs, what motivates him/her, etc. This document will be shared with the school and updated by you every year.Tips for effective advocacyAlways document the issues – if isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen and it wasn’t said.
Keep the lines of communication open -if communication breaks down, your efforts to advocate breaks down.
Never assume that the school knows what programs and services your child needs – it’s the parent’s job to make sure that the school understands what the child’s needs are. It’s the school’sjob to figure out the most effective way to meet those needs.
Improve your negotiations skills -negotiation ensures that both sides are working towards solving the problem and that both sides are happy with the solution, while keeping the parent-school relationship intact.
Keep your emotions under control-emotional outbursts are likely to undermine your advocacy efforts.
Always be on time for meetings -be respectful of everyone’s time and start the meeting off on the right note.
Identify key issues and stay focused-closely follow a prepared agenda and don’t get distracted. School meetings are usually very time limited. If you run out of time, re-schedule another meeting right away.
Follow-up on action items- many times a school meeting seems to have gone very well. However, in the days to come you realize that nothing has changed and nothing that was discussed in the meeting was done. It is important to put a mechanism in place to follow-up on action items, such as a follow-up meeting.
Don’t assume that school staff is knowledgeable about special education regulations and the accommodations that your child is entitled to – that is why it is important that the parent or advocate is knowledgeable. Your knowledge will be invaluable in assisting you to negotiate for appropriate programs, services, and accommodations for your child with autism. Knowledge is power!