I am the mother of an eleven-year-old autistic son. He just entered middle school this year and has been suspended for a total of six days. I feel that these suspensions stem from his disability, but I can’t get anyone to listen. He was never suspended while in his last school, but is experiencing problems now. I am open to any suggestions you may have.
With no information about what behaviors and circumstances precipitated your son’s suspensions, I can only offer general thoughts, with the hope that some will be of use, to you and to other parents in your situation.
First, my heart goes out to you. I have stood in your shoes. Mid-level administrators suspended one of my children during middle school under circumstances I felt were one-sided. Fortunately, a detailed, factual five-page letter from me and one from our doctor ended the incident promptly. The principal overrode the suspension, sagely pointing out that a student who isn’t in school isn’t learning. I would add that while the student isn’t in school, staff isn’t learning anything about him. The lack of learning on the part of the staff is every bit as detrimental as it is for the student.
So here are some questions you face.
What preparation did your child receive for the transition to middle school? The transition to middle school can be monumental. The student often goes from having one general education teacher and remaining in the same classroom all day in fifth grade to having multiple teachers and changing classrooms five or six times a day in middle school. Navigating the unfamiliar environment is often a major challenge, let alone having to assimilate the expectations, communication styles and classroom rules of so many different teachers. Expecting or assuming that an 11-year-old with documented processing problems would automatically know or intuit these things is unrealistic and unfair.
Does he understand the rules of behavior at the school? Do you? Familiarize yourself with both the rights of parents and the responsibilities of the school system with regard to discipline. The school should have a handbook outlining behavior expectations, what constitutes infraction, and what the prescribed consequences are for infractions. Were these rules clearly explained to your child (in a manner comprehensible to him) at the first infraction, and was he given clear, written/visual instructions to refer back to, for what to do differently to avoid future incidents? Did school personnel follow-up, reinforce, role-play, check for comprehension to ensure that he understood?
Your child doesn’t get a pass for breaking established rules because he has autism, but neither does the school get to enforce such rules disproportionately for segment populations. Recently the news media has been alive with the growing awareness that schools sometimes enforce discipline policies disproportionately for special education and minority students. Is there documented proof that your son violated established rules, and are students without autism suspended for the same actions? If his actions are destructive, disruptive or harmful to others, it’s understandable that the school might halt the behavior by removing him from the environment. However, that’s only the first step of many. The next step must be . . .
What actions has the school taken to identify the root of the behaviors? All behavior communication about something that is happening in a child’s environment, a need that is not being met. Communication and sensory issues usually top the list, but there can be many other social, physiological and emotional causes. Until staff identifies and meaningfully addresses the cause of the behavior, it will continue. Sometimes we’re able to squash a behavior, but without addressing the root cause, a substitute behavior will usually arise.
Consider requesting a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) performed by a trained behavior specialist. An FBA assesses specific behaviors based on their ABCs: the antecedent (cause or trigger), the behavior itself and the consequence (what happens to the child as a result of the behavior). Websites such as www.wrightslaw.com and others can guide you through the process. The idea behind an FBA is that, once identified, the antecedents and consequences of a behavior can be altered or modified by teaching the child (in a manner meaningful to him) more appropriate behavior.
Does your son have visual supports? When everything is changing from hour to hour, visual supports that move with him through the day are essential.
Does your child have an IEP? If he does, is the school in compliance? Compliance with IEPs is not optional; it’s federal law; district policy does not override federal law. If your child does not have an IEP, have you contacted your district special education department about an evaluation process that might lead to one? IEPs can and should encompass not only academic goals, but also sensory, communication and social accommodations necessary to allow the student to meet his full learning potential.
What training do his teachers and administrators have in communicating with and structuring curricula and learning materials for students with autism? If they have no training, you have the right to request it.
How do your communicate with school staff? Are you assertive—or aggressive? Know the difference between the two, especially if you “can’t get anyone to listen.” Being assertive means being resolute, self-assured and respectful, whereas aggression is hostile or destructive behavior. Assertive means being informed, focused, tenacious and firm and, again, respectful. You’ll more likely be heard when communicating in this manner than when you’re in attack mode, where any listener’s natural tendency will be to tune out, avoid, get defensive or reciprocate in kind–none of which will be productive.
Have you expressed exactly what you want? Be specific and clear about actions you want the school to take, verbally and in writing. In a new school, staff doesn’t know your child and it takes time to build that. Help them by articulating your child’s strengths and challenges, learning style, and what strategies may be more effective to help him learn and grow. Give examples. Give factual backup. The strongest tool for IEPs, for any learning plan, is facts, facts, facts. Parents and teachers alike need to keep emotions, egos and territoriality in check. Reasonable people can discuss, disagree and still reach goals. No one is always right or always wrong.
Be aware that not all his behaviors are attributable to autism. At 11, puberty is under way and some of his obstreperous behaviors will be typical of early adolescence. As with behaviors attributable to his autism, puberty can be a reason but not an excuse. Learning to own and take responsibility for one’s behaviors is a critical life skill.
My story had a happy ending. When my second child entered middle school with special needs and an IEP, I had to deal with the same mid-level administrator. We met before the start of the school year, a meeting wherein I warily said, “I’m baaaaack.” And she said, “I learned from that incident. We are not going to have any problems.” And we didn’t. She bent over backwards to ensure that my son’s needs were met to the very best of the school’s ability.
Educators must be learners too. If your school staff proves unwilling to educate themselves about your son’s learning style, communication abilities and sensory needs, I urge you to search far, wide and creatively for other options. I had to do that too, early in both my sons’ educations. We made significant changes, at some sacrifice, and those changes were some of the best decisions I ever made.
© 2014 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com