A Letter to Teachers of Students on the Autism Spectrum, From a Mom

When my son was in school 21 years ago, we didn’t know he was on the autism spectrum. What we did know was that he had some learning disabilities that made it difficult for him to function in a traditional classroom without extra support.

My son loved to learn! But at one school, he struggled with teachers who practiced “old school” teaching methods, teachers who wouldn’t acknowledge that he had a different way of learning. I’ll never forget the time he came home after school so sad and upset. When I asked him what happened, he told me that his lab partner in science class complained he wasn’t doing his fair share of the work. The lab partner he was assigned was the same boy who taunted and teased him on the playground. Instead of teaching his lab partner about patience and compassion for my son’s challenges, the teacher told my son he had to work alone. When I went to speak with this teacher, the teacher was unwilling to budge — but the next day, my son was given two new lab partners (two boys who were always kind and friendly to him).

We took my son out of that school and found a school with teachers who embraced his learning style and accepted him for who he was. No, that’s not quite right. They adored and admired him for who he was. They didn’t punish him for the way his brain worked. They nurtured and believed in him. They proved to him that he was smart and talented. And guess what? He became student of the year and went on to graduate from college with honors.

He may not remember his experience at the other school, but I’ll never forget. I use the memory as motivation to do whatever I can to make sure no other child with autism is labeled or misunderstood.

Dear teachers of students on the autism spectrum:

It’s been years since my son was in elementary school, and I hope that there is more awareness out there. I think it varies from school to school, so here are some words of advice I hope you’ll consider:

Delve deeper. If a student doesn’t fit a “typical” profile, don’t automatically assume they are “lazy” and don’t want to do the work. I wish my son’s teacher had called me to discuss the issue before acting.

Create partnerships, not adversaries. The teachers at my son’s second school were nurturing and made me a part of their team. Instead of feeling at odds, we worked in tandem creating a supportive environment for my son. He thrived.

Give a child with learning challenges other ways to do their work and take tests. It isn’t “unfair” or cheating. It’ll give that student a chance to show you that they have indeed learned what you’ve taught them.

Don’t wait until parent conferences. Set up regular check-ins and communication with your autistic student’s parents. If I had known that the science teacher was going to be assigning lab partners, I could have let the teacher know this would be a challenge for my son.

Your actions have impact. Be the teacher who makes the positive impact your student (and his family) will remember with gratitude forever. Your words and your actions matter.

Note for parents and teachers: On my Geek Club Books autism nonprofit blog, I asked two of our autistic writers with experience in early education to write “What Your Autistic Students Want You to Know.” Read what they have to say and get the free guide with more of their advice and tips. Geek Club Books for Autism is part of The Mighty Partner Program.

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