Last week in Sunday school I thought I was going to lose it. I was trying to teach, but the children were all focused on my daughter Rachel and what she was and wasn’t doing. Why? They don’t understand autism.

And why don’t they understand autism? I haven’t taught them about it! Sure I’ve tried, but it was always at the spur of the moment when not all the kids were listening. So what do I do?

Only now do I remember my friend Dena’s advice: “Be your child’s advocate.” One of the best ways to do that is to educate others about your special needs child. So, here are some strategies I’ve picked up from moms and teachers who have been there:

Teacher’s notes
Write a note to every one of your child’s teachers and attach a picture of your child. Tell them about her likes and dislikes, interests, fears, sensory issues, what kinds of things cause tantrums, what certain behaviors indicate (i.e., she flaps her hands when the class is too loud). Give the teacher a clear picture of how your child communicates, what his needs are, and make sure to describe your child’s disability. Also include other helpful suggestions (i.e., he needs visual cues to understand oral directions, she can’t hear from the back of the room, he needs to sit by the door). This helps remove some of the mystery and fear for the teachers, and they appreciate it—at least Rachel’s teachers have.

Parent and Classmate Notes
Write a letter to your child’s classmates and their families at the beginning of each school year. In this letter describe your child, including his/her disability. Assure the families that your child’s condition is not contagious, and give them ideas on how to interact with your child—much of the same information my friend Dena told me to put in the teacher’s letter. Again, this removes much fear and anxiety.

A Class Lesson
Kathy, a wise special needs mom if I’ve ever met one, used to teach her daughter’s classmates a lesson about autism. (She usually did this when her daughter was not in the room.) Among other things, she would bring a radio and tune it to static then turn the sound up and down, all the while talking. Afterward, she would ask the children to tell her what they heard. Of course, the message was garbled, and that is how she explained the way someone with sensory issues might understand language. The kids got it, and they then found ways to befriend and help her daughter.

Compare and Contrast
Have two children stand at the front of the class and ask the rest of the children to describe the ways in which those two are different (physical characteristics; their favorite colors, foods, toys, and games; any dislikes). Point out how everyone is different then talk about how your own child’s disability (or whatever terminology you prefer) makes him or her different.

You may have other ideas, and I encourage you to share them. The most important thing is to be an advocate for your child.

So, this weekend I’m going to put this into practice. Using the compare and contrast model along with Kathy’s radio idea, I’m going to teach a lesson on autism to Rachel’s Sunday school peers. I’ll let you know how it goes …