Aug 01, 2012 0 Share

Individualizing the Student

Father and teenage daughter meet with teacher.

Parents can support their teenager on the spectrum in many ways, but one that often gets overlooked is the support provided by helping school staff see your young adult as an individual. Neurotypical adults—whether teachers, administrators, or coaches—may at most have only a superficial understanding of the autism spectrum. In addition, the autism spectrum is highly diverse in how different young people display their disability. A positive alternative is helping school staff to truly understand your teenager and his or his unique qualities and challenges. 

My years of experience with students with various learning and mental health challenges have shown me the breadth of characteristics which appear in students on the spectrum. It is reflective of the great diversity among human beings, despite our constant efforts to easily label and categorize people. At the last school I headed, one young man struggled with social relationships with his peers, but grasped humor and sarcasm and communicated very well with many adults in his world. That teenager had a wide range of interests. Another student was highly verbal, but his verbosity reflected his tendency to obsess about two hobbies--computers and video games. His challenges with logical thinking included difficulty in consistently recognizing the effect of his actions on other students. A third student caught my attention at his enrollment meeting by correcting my pronunciation and grammar several times. As a middle school student, he was only beginning to struggle with the expanded demands of peer relationships. The result of the differences in these students is that my teachers had to be selective about which techniques to use to enhance these students’ social skills. We could not use a cookie-cutter approach. 

When educators start with a narrow template of what constitutes autism, the outcome is ineffective teaching. A better approach happens when teachers start with getting to know individual students and use the autism diagnosis as a resource for providing the best support possible. Focusing on the category and not the individual often leads to teachers simply being frustrated that the student isn’t behaving in a predictable manner. 

Making Friends 

As a parent, you can actively cultivate relationships with teachers and administrators to help them view your child as an individual. One action parents can take is to provide all teachers with information about the child’s likes, dislikes, motivators, and behavioral triggers. Effective teachers follow the best practice of building a positive rapport with their students, and personal information—such as a student’s love of trains or the video game “Halo”—helps facilitate that rapport. The teacher or administrator’s response to that information also assists you in determining how willing they are to work as a team with you. For example, during enrollment meetings, I took notes on students’ likes, dislikes and behavioral triggers and disseminated those to every teacher in the school. I also set an expectation that teachers use that information. This practice made my teachers more effective. Our goal was not to teach autistic students; our goal and our responsibility were to teach individual students. 

Of course, the trick is to do this in a way that helps you gain the teacher’s cooperation. This process is often an exercise in identifying the most outstanding teachers in the school building. In general, the more a teacher exhibits an ability to listen to you and your concerns, the more likely he or she will also demonstrate the same behavior with your teenager. You can look at this experience as an opportunity to gain great skills in reading people and understanding their motivations—skills you are also likely to want your young adult to develop. 


Using stories will also be particularly helpful as you speak with teachers about your student’s needs. Many teachers best remember specific qualities about our students when a concrete example in the form of a story reinforces the information parents are providing. This approach likely gives us a visual image to return to when we next encounter that student and need to respond differently than we habitually do. It’s even better to learn enough about an educator to make the story meaningful to them in some way. For example, if you as a parent know that your son, James, has the same name as his social studies teacher’s son, you have a way of engaging with that teacher on a personal basis, which may be far more effective than engaging in the more formal teacher and parent stereotypes. Again, you will be bringing forth your student’s humanity and linking it to the teacher’s experience. 

Remember the Big Picture 

When it comes to our kids, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. We love them deeply and know that they need our support and advocacy. The challenge is that our tenacity on their behalf can come across to educators as pushy and even interfering. Of course on one level, that reaction is irrelevant; we still have to do what we believe is best for our teenagers. It can be helpful, though, to view any troubling situation—such as a conflict with a teacher or another student—from a broader perspective. By taking a short time to view a situation from other vantage points—the student’s, the teacher’s, the principal’s, and so on—we are better able to help bring about a solution. In addition, looking at the big picture helps us to not take other people’s reactions personally, which then allows us to listen, gather information, and strategize more effectively. For example, an unresponsive teacher may be a genuine problem and your student may need to be in a different class. On the other hand, if a parent can patiently and nicely reiterate her concerns again the following week, instead of going directly to the principal to address a problem, she may find the previous response was a one-time incident. Perhaps the teacher was coming down with the flu and was desperate to leave school for the day when you came to her classroom to discuss a problem. Errant negative responses can be dismissed with this approach, while if the teacher’s negativity or unwillingness to treat your student as an individual is ongoing, you may have gathered the information needed to make a meeting with the principal far more effective. 


The example above also speaks to the value of perseverance in helping your student succeed.  It could take a long time. And, breaking down any conflict or solution into a step-by-step process models effective problem-solving for your student. For example, you have a negative encounter with your student’s English teacher and you are feeling furious about it. Your impulse might be to stomp directly into the principal’s office and create a scene. And while a calm, effective principal might hear your frustration and help you to process it, and then move on to finding a solution that supports your student’s growth, you may not be dealing with a school leader who possesses those qualities. Furthermore, your student may not have the skills to make sense of a parental outburst in a meaningful way. So a better approach across the board is to model the practice of calming yourself completely before you connect with the principal, especially in the presence of your child. This can be challenging, but is a great opportunity to help your teenager learn good social skills. You can also enhance that learning process by mindfully describing the steps you go through to calm yourself and to plan your next step.  

Flying on Their Own 

Finally, when your student is ready, you can also help him learn to advocate for himself in the ways described above. All the skills parents can use to positively and effectively advocate for their students are skills that both parents and educators know these young people need to learn. Whether your teenager has high-functioning autism or Asperger’s, he or she will benefit from repeated, patient, clearly-described modeling of the constructive ways in which people communicate to solve problems and to develop relationships. Parents can role play with their students, ask probing questions of their teenager about the behavior of people on television or in the grocery store, and openly explain their own behavior as parents. All these practices let young men and women experience and succeed at being self-advocates in a safe environment. 

In the End 

What most of us want in life—whether we are neurotypical or experiencing the autism spectrum firsthand—is to be understood and known not only (and not foremost) as a member of a group, but as individuals. Helping your young adult be seen and appreciated for his love of pepperoni pizza, his obsession with anime, and his great vocabulary is not only vital for the important goal of giving him a sense of being valued as a person, but also because it helps the educators who teach him be more patient, more supportive, more understanding and ultimately more effective in their work.