7 things smart parents know about autism and education

Lisa Jo Rudy

If you're anything like me, you spend a lot of time learning about your autistic child's needs and rights. You've studied up on IEP's, and you feel pretty sure you've made the right decisions, asked the right questions, and set up the right program. Then your child goes off on the school bus, and disappears. What's going on behind the school's closed doors? Is your child really getting the education he needs? Here are seven things you need to know as you keep tabs on your child's progress.

1. IEP's Are Only as Good as the People Who Implement Them
Many articles and consultants will tell you that IEP's are the most important tool in your parental toolbox. After all, they're legal documents that bind the school to provide certain services and supports, and to show results. But no matter how well crafted your IEP is, it's only as good as the teachers and administrators who implement them.

2. Kids Don't Always Report the Whole Truth to Parents
Many children with autism really don't communicate very much about their daily experience at school. Some will say what they've been asked to say "it was good," "it was fine." A few may exaggerate either the positives or the negatives -- "Everyone is my friend," or "Everyone hates me." It's unlikely that any of these statements are the complete truth, so it's up to you to dig for the facts.

3. Your Child's Inclusive Class May Not Be Helping Him Learn
The law says that children with special needs should be included in the "least restrictive environment" at school. And yes, it is possible for fight for your child's inclusion in the general education classroom even if she has a range of sensory, intellectual, and behavioral challenges. Often, however, children with autism really don't learn well in a large, cluttered space with 23 peers and an inflexible curriculum.

4. Programs Don't Always Live Up to Their Descriptions
At the IEP meeting, the special education director described a wonderful "lunch bunch" program during which students with autism practice their social skills. What she didn't mention is that the program is run in a noisy cafeteria, for 15 minutes, by a teacher's aide who has not been trained to provide social skills therapy. That doesn't mean the program is worthless -- but it does mean you've been manipulated into believing that the program is therapeutic.

5. School Schedules May Trump Your Child's IEP
Well, yes, it SAYS your child will be working on social and physical skills at recess each day -- but unfortunately both the therapist who would be working with your child has schedule conflicts... so your son has been staying inside during recess for the last two weeks. Oh, we didn't mention that? So sorry. Yes, this type of occurrence may be technically illegal (the IEP is, after all, a legal agreement) -- but it happens all the time.

6. Teacher Reports Can Be Misleading
Teachers want their students to succeed, and when their students have special needs they may stretch the truth or exaggerate to achieve that success. For example, they may describe a "new friend" who is really a typical peer who is willing to sit at the same lunch table as your child. They may note that your child is "speaking up more," which means he once raised his hand when prompted by an aide. These are not intentional lies -- but they can be very misleading.

7. Compassion May Trump Education
Many adults are taught from a young age to be kind to people with disabilities. This is, of course, a wonderful thing. But often, kindness can lead to lowered expectations, less constructive criticism, and an eagerness to jump in and help before help is needed. The result, in some cases, is an autistic child who waits for help, does less than she is able to do, or assumes she is incompetent. If you can, observe teachers' interactions with your child, and help them to hold your child to the highest appropriate standards.

Nothing Beats Your Own Observations
It's hard to manage all the red tape associated with special education. It's even harder when schools choose not to follow IEPs and teachers are less than forthcoming about what's really going on in the classroom. The bottom line: listen to everyone, take notes, and then do your own observations to check the facts.

Courtesy of About.com

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