Back to School for Children with Autism: When Do I Put my Lawyer on Speed-Dial?

For many parents of children afflicted with autism, the end of summer is also the end of a brief respite from the stress and rancor of battling school district officials and staff for appropriate accommodations for your child. It is, once again, time to meet the professionals who are entrusted with your autistic child’s future. Here’s some advice from a tortured, but ultimately victorious, mother who advocated for her child every single day, of every single year (living in a country with no laws protecting the disabled). This writer’s child did, indeed, graduate high school without being tracked, and ultimately received what she required (no thanks to the bureaucrats who obstructed every single, painful step of the way). Here are the eight rules this mother lived by:

1) Know what your child needs
Here’s where you need to do your homework. First, make sure that the privately funded professionals working with your child have a clear idea of a)
your child’s needs and b) how the school district can fulfill those needs e.g. a full-time aide with expertise in ABA, or a part-time trained aide purely for recess and lunch. Your professional(s) need to commit this to paper in an Individual Education Plan - IEP, so that even before you approach the school district for the first time, you are ready to respectfully deliver your child’s requirements as prepared by your professional, autism treatment team.

2) Keep a journal
Keep a journal by your phone and in your car. Every time you talk with school officials about your child and his/her needs, write it down. Everything! You need to record every promise and every interaction, noting the time and date. Your child (and your lawyer if necessary) will appreciate this written log tremendously.

Know your rights!
If you live in the United States, you have a relatively easier task of securing your child’s educational rights because the federal legislation is quite clear, and there are many advocates available to educate parents. In addition, there are
books that can help you get up to speed quickly. If you are not in the United States, make it a point to find out what your child’s rights are and please e-mail me with that information since I would very much like to share the information with international visitors to this blog.

4) Acquire local knowledge
Talk to other parents in your school district to get an impression as to how open or close-minded the school officials are when it comes to accommodating children with autism. In addition, find out what accommodations the school district has provided other parents (but never use that knowledge against those parents)!

5) Never let them see you cry!
Let me repeat that: Never let them see you cry! A popular technique honed by years of practice within the special education field is for the school “experts” to befriend you, and comfort you on how difficult your life must be with a child afflicted with autism (all the while not providing for your child). This technique works particularly well with parents who are prone to becoming emotionally upset, rather than angry, because their child’s needs are not being met.

Remember, your job is not to make friends. They don’t even have to like you: they need to respect the fact that you know your child’s rights, and you will not compromise on what s/he requires. Be careful if they seem
too fond of you.

6) Do NOT use untoward language
No matter how angry they make you feel, no matter how disrespectful they are of you, never get into a yelling match, and
never use profanity (even though it may feel good at the time). Always keep your cool! One technique of incompetent special educators is to paint the parent as an unreasonable, unstable person. Then these employees can use standard regulations to bar the parent from the school grounds. Remember, everything you say may be used against you in a hearing or court proceeding.

7) Get an advocate
If you are not getting anywhere on your own, it is time to find an advocate to help you get your child’s needs met. The advocate’s involvement may force the principal to put the school system’s commitment in writing in a meaningful way. If you are not successful, even with the help of an advocate, then it is time for the next step!

8) Put your lawyer on speed dial!
Many parents think that they cannot afford a lawyer to protect their child’s rights. I agree that litigation is expensive; however, so is private school for the next twelve years! If your child is very young and the school is not providing what is either medically necessary for your child, in countries with socialized medicine, or a
Fair and Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment - FAPE in the United States, think about the damage that can be done to your child... In some cases, a few well placed letters from a lawyer with expertise in autism case law will do the trick; however, you need to be prepared to go “all the way” since bureaucrats are expert at discerning bluff from true intent.

You may be lucky and have a school district that is one step ahead of you, ready and eager to provide your child with an unbelievably great educational experience! I’m sure that there are several school districts that have already learned (sometimes rather begrudgingly) to accommodate children with autism; however, in case your school district is still operating based on a 1950s model, be prepared to blaze the trail. Your child’s future depends upon it!