If you're the parent of an autistic child, you may recognize the feeling: You drop him off to school every day, kiss him good-bye and wait anxiously until the afternoon when it’s time to pick him up. You greet him warmly, but he turns his head away and shrinks into his seat. What's wrong? He cannot or will not tell you. What can you do? The key to uncovering many of the underlying causes for your child’s behavior may be communication with your child’s teacher, who can be your best ally when it comes to helping your child.

There are two ways of doing this – formally or informally. Formal communication comes in the form of parent-teacher conferences or IEP (Individualized  Educational Plan) meetings. These forums exist for the purpose of updating parents on their child’s progress and for reviewing or setting goals for the next year. These meetings are very important, but one cannot discount the significance of informal communication between teachers and parents of children with autism.

Laura Shumaker, author and mother of a child with autism, believes that communication between parents and teachers should be constant and “detailed.” By this she means it should be more than “Had a great day” or “Hit a student.” Want to get started? Here are steps experts they believe parents can take to facilitate communication with their children’s teachers.

The Role of Parents

Kathy Bolduc, mother of a son with autism and author of several books, encourages parents to “not be afraid to show emotions in parent/teacher conferences. Parenting a child with autism is a challenging, though often joyful, job. By being open with your feelings, you invite the teacher to be in relationship with you.

Invite the teacher over to your home for a cup of coffee and the chance to see your child on his/her home turf. This can go a long way toward forming a relationship. You can put together a simple booklet or pamphlet introducing your child to his teacher at the beginning of the year. List his strengths, favorite activities, foods, music, and books; calming activities you use at home, topics he enjoys talking about, etc.

Sometimes, there is no substitute for an occasional visit to your child’s school at pick up or drop off. (Bring a few flowers from your garden, if possible!) Keep the visit short, but the more appreciation and encouragement you show your child’s teacher, the better the outcome for all.

Teachers are usually open to communication as well, but busy schedules may make it impossible for them to always have the answers parents seek. For example, when Johnny’s mother meets the teacher at the end of a busy day and asks, “How did Johnny do in calendar time today?” the teacher may not have the information at the top of her head. A parent’s question, though casual, may be seeking an in-depth answer, such as whether Johnny sat through the whole of calendar time. Did he respond when called upon? Did he make eye contact? The teacher would do well to say, “We still have some issues to work out. Can I get back to you on that?” Then for the next few days she can compile a log of Johnny’s behaviors and present it to his parents at a scheduled meeting.

The Role of Teachers

Nicole Beurkens, M.Ed. and consultant to parents and school professionals, offers the following do’s and don’ts for teachers:

  • Do make sure you communicate at least one positive for every negative – Positive: Johnny is able to tell us when he wants to go to the bathroom. Negative – Johnny is unable to identify the Boys’ sign.
  • Don’t make parents feel it is their responsibility to “fix” problems that are happening at school.
  • Do respond to communication from parents promptly, especially if you expect them to do the same.
  • Don’t write only when you want to vent or tell the parent about problems.
  • Do ask parents what type of communication system (notebook, email, phone call, etc.) would work best for them.
  • Don’t give up if parents don’t communicate back to you consistently.  Keep sharing your observations and requests, and encourage them to do the same.

Communication between parents and teachers is necessary for a child’s educational growth. When the child is autistic, communication becomes crucial. It may not always be possible to do this in a way that is satisfactory to everyone concerned, but with some effort, improvements can be made that will not only benefit the child, but the adults as well.