When Lucas comes home from school, things usually go the same way. I walk him in and then reach out my arms for a giant hug. He’ll duck that hug and sprint into the dining room for one of his electronic toys. As he pushes the buttons intently like a tiny businessman, I run by and scoop him up. With my arms wrapped tightly around him, I swing his body back and forth. I then ask, with one syllable per turn:
His laughter grows with each shake. I place him back down and point to my cheek. He gives me a kiss and dizzily stumbles off to continue his Leapfrog business meeting while I get the answer to my question from his backpack.
Since Lucas is non-verbal, he can’t tell me how his day went but the notebook his teachers and I exchange messages in can. Little updates like cranky mornings, fun activities, and new skills are all enclosed. Sometimes they’ll include pictures from a field trip or even take a video on his communication iPad so I can see some of his achievements first hand.
We’re lucky in that respect. My son’s current set of teachers, who have followed him from Kindergarten into first grade, have been amazing. They know where he needs assistance and where he doesn’t. They’re also aware of everything he’s been doing at home and have been able to balance that out with what he does at school.
Or course, they’re in the same boat we are. They can’t ask him what he’s doing at home. I mean, they can, but they won’t get an answer either. Even if he did have the language or communication available to him, many kids on the spectrum aren’t interested in giving you detailed reports on their progress.
That type of information is extremely important, though. To ensure that we’re all working forward to develop the same life skills, we all need to be aware of what he’s capable of. If he’s climbing the stairs step-over-step without stumbling at home, they need to know that at school so that they can expect the same progress when he does it there. At least as it relates to Lucas, if you allow him to slack, he’ll slack. If he knows that you’re aware that he can do something, he’ll do it. It’s no different than a child without Autism who doesn’t want to tie their shoes or brush their own teeth.
I update his teachers a lot through that notebook. Early on, I worried that I was telling them too much. I’d fill pages with stories about our trips to the supermarket or the latest game we’ve been playing. At least initially, it was merely for therapeutic reasons. I could finally tell someone all the great things we had done together and they would listen. Tell a family friend that your kid was able to walk through a street fair without having a tantrum and they’ll give you a half-hearted “great.” Tell his teacher and she’ll respond with the same excitement that you had when it happened.
That might seem like a frivolous feel-good moment, but it’s not. It’s actually incredibly vital. Don’t view your special education teacher like a mechanic looking to fix different issues. Sure, they want to know the areas where improvements are needed, but they also need to know the areas where your kid excels. Many parents of special needs children aren’t used to that.
So much of our conversations revolve around missed milestones or delays. Sometimes telling others about the happier moments might seem strange. While I could get excited about seeing him clap at the appropriate times during “if you’re happy and you know it”, it feels awkward saying it out loud when another six year old is break-dancing ten feet away.
All of that goes out the window when it comes to school, though. This is your time to do just that. His teacher will never look at you and say, “Yeah, he claps. Great. But Jerry over there is bustin’ a move.” It will not only bring a smile to the teacher’s face but also help them tailor their lesson plans to your kid.
I always knew this, but the moment when it broke through for me was during a conversation with Lucas’s speech teacher during a class party. For years, my son and I had been playing an imitation game at bedtime. I would do a very high pitched “Laaaaaaaa” in a singing tone. He would laugh and repeat the sounds back. Sure, his pitch was off and Simon Cowell would never send him to Hollywood, but he still repeated the “aaaaaa” in a higher voice. While this was a major deal to us, it didn’t feel like it would be to anyone else. It’s not a story I told at dinner parties.
So when I mentioned it in passing to his speech teacher, I was shocked when her eyes widened and she began feverishly writing in her notebook. In that moment, I saw how much the people working with Lucas care about seeing him flourish and how important my role is in making that happen.
Now I update his teachers on everything I can and they do the same. Our meetings are loaded from start to finish with stories and explanations. No one ever puts their hand up and says, “Dude. Stop. No one wants to hear this.” In fact, they return stories of their own and before you know it, we’ve blown past our allotted time.
Whether your child is entering school this year or has been there for years, your role in their advancement can’t be overstated. No one knows your children more than you do, but their teachers are trying. I’ve spent his lifetime learning the tools I need to get through to him. Now it’s my responsibility to make sure his teachers have them too.