My youngest son has autism. He’s doing well, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy road. Especially with school. He’s had a team of teachers, specialists and other educators each year to help him him grow and learn. And I’m so grateful for all these special education team members. They have made a huge impact in our lives.
However, there have been a few times when their words have been less than helpful. Sometimes a downright punch in the gut, riling up the mama bear in me. It’s surprising what has been said in the course of my son’s education journey. Here are the five worst things I’ve heard from special educators, in no particular order.
1. “We can’t accommodate those requests.”
During my son’s first grade year, he had quite a bumpy road and some pretty tough behaviors. After an extensive meeting with a roomful of various educators on his team, we decided on some action items to get him back on track. I recapped the meeting for all parties involved so we were on the same page. I reiterated my son would start to receive a daily schedule and I would receive a daily behavior sheet so I could help figure out why he was getting upset and reinforce things at home.
When I sent the email, I received the reply “We can’t accommodate those requests.” What? This was a critical piece in solving the puzzle of what was going wrong for my son in school. And we all agreed upon it during the meeting. A schedule is basic Autism 101, so it was not an outrageous request. You can bet I marched in to the principal’s office and the next day we had a schedule and a daily communication sheet.
2. “For the dignity of the child, we don’t want him crying in the halls.”
At that time, crying was my son’s way of expressing his extreme discomfort, overwhelm and frustration with his situation. His teachers should have been focusing on why he was crying instead of shaming him and moving him out of sight so other kids wouldn’t stare. I felt like the “dignity of the child” was more about shaming than problem solving.
3. “Our special friends.”
We had one special educator in particular, a director in fact, refer to all the students in the autism program as “our special friends.” It was quite condescending. Why are they not simply students? Why are they “special?” Aren’t all students special? Why single them out? Every time she used the term, it would grind on me. She would say it in front of the students too. It would confuse the heck out of my son as he had very specific rules of what constituted a friend, and she wasn’t it! To him, friends play together and are of similar age and like similar things. She was an adult and a teacher and clearly not in the friend category. He wanted nothing to do with friendships as they were exhausting socially to him. So he flat out told her she wasn’t his friend!
4. “Congratulations, your son qualifies for services.”
We heard this when our son was first evaluated for autism. We didn’t understand what an autism diagnosis meant, and weren’t ready to face it. We were confused and didn’t know what to do. So to hear our suspicions of autism confirmed for the first time was not a reason to celebrate. We realize now that he needed help and we are grateful he did qualify for services. It just wasn’t a “congratulations” situation at that time.
5. “Have you considered medication?”
Asking if my child is currently on medication is of course a necessity in his education plan. However, implying he should be medicated is not an educator’s place. Ever.
It’s not my nature to complain only about the negative experiences we’ve had. I truly am extremely grateful for the myriad of therapists, teachers and specialists who have helped my son on his journey. We couldn’t do it without these amazing people. And we’ve encountered some seriously amazing people too! So here are the 5 best things I’ve heard from special educators.
1. “Let’s try it.”
My son was in a therapy center full time when he was 5, and he was having a bit of a hard time in the group he was in. I felt he was bored with his current level and ready to move on to the next level. But he was having behaviors that his current therapist felt he needed to overcome before moving on. The next level lead therapist thought otherwise, and suspected the same thing I did – he was bored and ready for the next challenge. So she said, “Let’s try it for a week.” And he did remarkably well! So we moved him up. It wasn’t without bumps and new challenges, but he definitely was ready for the next level.
2. “I’d like to recommend him to represent our class on the Student Council.”
I was floored when my son’s 4th grade autism teacher suggested this. It wasn’t even something I thought was possible. But she believed he could handle the responsibility and it would be good for him. She was so right. Not only did it give him practice talking in front of the class, he began to feel a sense of pride and belonging — something that had never happened before.
3. “He has such a big heart.”
A teacher I didn’t know very well said this, and told me a story of how my son consoled her when she was having a rough day. For him to go out of his way and give her a hug really touched her. It didn’t surprise me he did this, but I was so happy that others see what a compassionate person he is. Any time a teacher tells you something good about your child’s character, it’s a great feeling!
4. “He’s ready to graduate.”
We heard this from our therapy center when he completed the transition program with his peers and was ready for mainstream school the next year. I will never forget how immensely proud I was of him in his little cap and gown, and when he got up on the stage to give a sweet speech thanking his teachers. He was only 6! I can’t wait to see him again in a cap and gown when he’s 18 and graduating from high school. I’ll be even prouder and cry harder, I’m sure.
5. “We don’t have any more goals for him for speech and OT.”
His teachers were sort of apologetic and hesitant to suggest that my son no longer needed these services during his IEP meeting. But we were thrilled that he’s doing so well and no longer needs this level of support. As long as it’s truly because he’s at an appropriate level and that he can get those services again if needed, it’s OK to drop those services. I can see why this would be a hesitant statement if they worried that we believed he still needs the services, but he doesn’t. Moving on from needing support is a reason to celebrate!
The difference between these two lists is clear. The second list focuses on my son’s capabilities. Each of these educators believed in my son as much as his dad and I do. And that goes a long, long way on this special education journey. It’s not always an easy road, but with empathy, compassion and a belief in capabilities, special educators can make a huge impact with their words.