Dear teacher, my child has autism…
Sending your child with a developmental delay off to their first day of school knowing full well that all the new sounds, new smells and new people could send them into a meltdown is really hard. REALLY HARD. It goes against every natural instinct you have as a parent, to protect them from everyone and everything.
What if the teacher doesn’t understand what they’re asking for? What if they don’t understand what the teacher is asking them? What if they have no one to eat lunch with? All these questions will be swimming around in your brain, gnawing into every possible waking thought leading up to their first day of school. Then rinse and repeat every day for the rest of their schooling years. The best thing you can do is to focus on the things you can change, the things you can put in place to make sure they have the best opportunities possible.
It’s easy to say that the first step is finding a school that will work with you to give your child the best education possible, but it isn’t always that easy. Find other parents who have a child with autism or another developmental delay, see what their experience was. Shop around, do your research, ask questions. Unfortunately, that isn’t always practical. Living remotely or in a rural location can mean you only have limited choices, but still, it is worth finding out what all of your options are.
Acceptance vs Inclusion
There’s always the temptation to try and ‘re-educate’ a difficult/unwelcoming school, to show them that they are wrong. My advice is to take that energy and funnel it into researching an alternative school (where possible). Communication between parents and the school is key, so if you’re already struggling to communicate your child’s needs, it’s likely to be a lot worse further down the road.
When you’re looking for a school consider things like:
What kind of support is provided and how much?
Do they have a transition program from preschool?
The physical environment and daily schedule - is the playground fenced, is there daily time on play equipment etc.
Once you’ve found a school, meet with the principal and possibly your child’s teacher. Let them know your concerns. Let them know your child’s strengths and areas they need to work on. If you have any early intervention programs in place, tell them. Let them know you want to work with them, not against them. But also, listen to them as well. I know it is hard not to want to explode, to scream “JUST GIVE HIM A CHANCE, YOU’LL SEE!” but while it might feel good at the time, it isn’t really that helpful.
Over the years there will be good teachers and bad teachers and in between teachers. Teachers who go out of their way to be inclusive and teachers who just weren’t sure what to do when faced with some of the social and behavioural challenges that often come along with a developmental delay.
Work with what you have. Keep the conversation between you, your child’s teacher and the school flowing. Keep working on building play and social skills at home before your child starts. Prepare them for how to manage social interactions and situations, how to deal with the playground and practice things like waiting and lining up. School is their first taste at independence, so equip them with the right tools to deal with the experience. The ultimate goal is for them to enjoy going to school.