If you are currently an educator or director at a childcare center, chances are you have a diverse group of children in your care, including those with ASD. ASD stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder, and there is a wide range of characteristics when it comes to diagnoses. Some children will function on a level where there are little to no noticeable behaviors whereas some will need one on one support. No matter where the child fits on the spectrum, here are some ways you can partner with parents and be sure that you are prepared and welcoming to any and all children in your center.
All children are covered by the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), and it is our job as educators to provide the best opportunities we possibly can for any and all children, especially those with ASD. Studies show that about 1 in 44 children will be diagnosed with ASD, and boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. Since it is so prevalent, it’s important that we do our best to get as much training and knowledge as possible. Inviting experts, trainers, and parents to come speak with your team is a great start. Even though each child is unique and different, there are some foundational truths to learn that can help your staff have more awareness. Learning how to establish predictable routines as well as having picture cues/cards for each direction is one example that works well with most children with ASD.
Even if the parents of children with ASD seem to know a lot about their child with autism, it’s important to offer more knowledge to them. Hosting parent seminars and even sharing resources like books, videos, etc. will show that you are there to support the family and that you want to help. As we all know, knowledge is power, and since science and research are ever-changing, it’s important to pass on reputable research when it is received. This does not mean that you as the director or educator need to be the one leading these seminars. This means that you can be the one to find the proper presenters who are experts in the field that can help parents learn practical tools moving forward.
Whether you have one child in your center with Autism or 50, it is so important that staff are being properly trained with at least the basics. When staff are not educated, there will be high turnover for both families and staff. But when properly trained and well prepared, it will be an amazing experience for all.
Children with ASD are amazing, and it is your job and responsibility to help all of the children in your care feel included and loved. Embrace the uniqueness of each student and help foster an environment of acceptance and inclusion.
You are setting yourself up for failure if you accept enrollment of a child with Autism with no prior information, training, or plan. If you are in a center that offers infant care and older, chances are that a child will be diagnosed while in your care. It is important for your staff to know the signs and symptoms to look for when they are in your toddler program. It is important that teachers are sensitive and empathetic when sharing information, and it is imperative to have objective assessments to back up your judgment.
This is a very sensitive subject, and parents may be on edge when it comes to their child. It is important that you come from a place of love and a “same team” mentality when bringing any concerns and symptoms to a family. When you suspect a child may have Autism, start by recording observations, as you should be doing anyway for each child. Then, perform a routine developmental assessment/screening like ASQ (Ages and Stages Questionnaire), which again, you should be doing anyway. When you partner with parents in these assessments, it shows that you care and that you are prepared. If you are in constant communication with parents, it will be less awkward and difficult to have these conversations. It’s better to have a continuing and open conversation rather than one formal conference where you “break the news” to a family. Chances are, parents will be defensive and will not trust you if this has been your only real interaction with them. Communication is key, and not just intermittent communication, but daily communication.
Make sure the entire staff team is trained on how to properly administer these assessments and what to look for. Your staff should even be trained on how to kindly and objectively communicate this with parents. Remember- we are not pediatricians. So bringing this sensitive information to parents with the suggestion of seeing their pediatrician is the best option. Also, suggesting further evaluation through Early Intervention (if under three years of age) should be the goal when bringing this thoughtful information to parents, and since you are in constant communication with them, this should be well received.
I know this is the repetitive theme of this article, but you can never over-communicate. This is not just between educators and parents. This also goes for educators and directors. If you are a director reading this, be sure to always know how your educators are doing with the cases of ASD they have in their classrooms. If a child is not yet diagnosed and you are waiting for evaluations to take place, make sure the educators and parents are feeling supported. It can be very difficult during this “in-between” phase, so offer encouragement and plenty of help so that you can be the bridge for this hopefully short amount of time.
If you are an educator reading this, please do not feel like you need to be the solo hero in this story. Be sure to not only talk to the parents of your children with Autism, but also be sure to collaborate with the other educators and therapists who come in. Most importantly, make sure your director/supervisor knows how you are doing. What are you struggling with? What is working well? What needs to work better? Staying connected with your director is key to your success. Remember, you are not the only educator under their care, so if you don’t speak up and voice how you are doing, they might not even realize what you’re going through. It’s always good to go by the rule of “giving the benefit of the doubt” when it comes to our bosses who juggle so much more than we know about!
Lastly, as educators and directors, be in communication with the children’s therapists. Whether they have a wraparound, occupational therapist, speech therapist, physical therapist, behavioral therapist, or all of the above, be sure to ask a lot of questions and observe how they handle situations. Remember they are the professionals in this field and they will be able to give you tools and helpful ways to work with children when they are not present. Since you most likely see the therapists more than the parents do, it’s very helpful to relay anything that you’ve learned that helps the children with their parents so that they can try those strategies at home! This will show parents that you are all on the same team.
Be open and honest.
When you provide an open and honest atmosphere for both your staff and parents, no one will feel the need to “fake it til they make it.” Since we are always learning about ASD, it is not necessary to pretend to know everything. And since every child is different, what works for one may not work for others. When you’re frustrated, let someone know. When you need a break, let someone know. When you’ve had a breakthrough, let someone know!
Parents of children with Autism sometimes feel like they are barely holding it together. Offer a safe space for them to be open with you. Fostering that kind of environment will allow parents to feel safe and vulnerable. Since children in your care are most likely under 5 years of age, everyone in this situation is learning as they go. Be open with parents, ask questions, and offer lots of grace as they are sometimes just trying to make it through the day. In these early years of diagnosis, most parents are really just learning along with you, so remember that you’re all in this together. As children get older and parents learn more about them with the help of educators and therapists, they will start to get into a rhythm and feel more successful. But during this time of new diagnoses, remember to show an enormous amount of encouragement and vulnerability so that parents feel safe with you.
Children with Autism are fascinating. They are unique. They are exciting. They are extraordinary. When just learning about the diagnosis of a child or when you’re still waiting for support to begin (it can take many weeks or months to start), it is important to have extra staff if possible. This can be a cleared volunteer or director who makes themselves available if a child with autism is having a difficult time. You can even be proactive and ask for help before a transition is about to take place or when you know you may need more help so that the other children in your care can get the same attention across the board. When situations seem unsafe due to needing extra attention for a child, it is important to have these extra staff on hand. Something we do at our center is having local college students studying education come and be a “shadow” to these wonderful children who may need the extra care sometimes. As long as you have consistency, the children will often thrive with this. Having someone there to take a child for a short walk or continue an activity to completion when the rest of the class has moved on can make all the difference!
As a director, be sure to check in on your educators and offer that break if needed. As an educator, find ways to offer support to your colleagues by offering to go on a walk if ratios allow or even just popping in on your break to see how things are going. As both directors and educators, be available to parents as well. They may be feeling overwhelmed and isolated in this process. If someone on your staff can offer a date night or even an hour to go get coffee or roam Target alone, offer it! You have no idea what a difference that can make for a parent, and such a little sacrifice on your educator in the grand scheme of things.
Whether you are a director, educator, or parent reading this – we are all on the same team, and our collective goal is to see our children thrive- through love and care in ways that help them grow physically, emotionally, and socially. You are not alone! You are doing a fantastic job helping these amazing children on a daily basis. As the saying goes, not all superheroes wear capes, and you are just that- a SUPER HERO! Let’s be a support to each other – parents and childcare staff alike- knowing that if we stick together, these budding superheroes will be on their way to success!