Why you are your child's best advocate

Last Updated on April 16, 2024

I’ll never forget one Sunday while teaching Sunday school, when I really 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.” This is especially important when our children have a special need or learning difference that others may not understand.

I’ve learned over the years that one of the best ways to be your child’s advocate is to educate others about your special needs child. So, here are some strategies I’ve picked up from both moms and teachers who have been there.

Not only has this worked well over the years in church settings, but we’ve used this same strategies with our daughter in school settings as well.

How to advocate for your child at school

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.

Learning to be your child’s best advocate

The next weekend, I put some of these very tips I gathered into practice in the classroom. Using the compare and contrast model along with Kathy’s radio idea, I set out to teach a lesson on autism to Rachel’s Sunday school peers.

Well, I’ll start by telling you that it was a good learning experience (and yes, I do mean to imply that it was a bit disastrous). I was talking to a group of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds at the time. Let me tell you, tough crowd, those little ones! I definitely know now how to simplify the lesson more for the audience.

Since then I’ve been able to refine and get even clearer on how to have conversations like this again in the future.

Here are some suggestions I took with me from that day:

  • Try to teach when the classroom is calm.
  • Remove distractions.
  • Have a handout for the adults and a similar one to send home with the children.
  • As mentioned in the previous post, write a brief description of your child’s disability, explain some of the specific ways your child is affected, then provide a website address for further study. If you are comfortable, provide your number or email should anyone wish to contact you with questions.

Despite my initial shortcomings, I’d say the results were positive. We had new teachers in the room, and they seemed very interested. They asked me several questions and made an effort to reach my daughter.

A few of the older children have changed from frustrated by what they perceived as Rachel getting special treatment to being her biggest helpers.

At the end of the day, knowing how to advocate for your child can make all the difference in their experience and how they perceive themselves.

So parents, even when it’s awkward or frustrating – do it anyway. Advocate for your child whenever you need to. You’ll be glad you did.

Have other ideas I didn’t mention here? I encourage you to share them in the comments!

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