At this time of year, parents of children with autism are thinking about the upcoming school year and the best way to make sure their children receive the support and guidance needed to succeed. In this episode of ASD: A New Perspective, RDI co-founder Dr. Rachelle Sheely and co-host Kat Lee give practical advice to parents looking for answers for the best school fit for their child with autism, including how the RDI program can fit into school goals.

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Kat Lee: It’s a time of year when my clients turn to … I really want to think about my goals, but right now, I’m thinking about RDI and school, like how does school fit into my life, should I make any new decisions, if I questions of should I home school, should I go to a private school, should I go half time school. These are just really wracking emotionally speaking decisions for my parents.

Dr. Sheely: And I think as consultants, it is for us, too, because we can’t predict the future. And part of the anxiety and tension that we feel is that anxiety and tension about what’s going to happen, who is this teacher, will something come up that I’m not prepared for, do I need an IEP, or do I not need an IEP? And if I get an IEP, then is it going to be a self fulfilling prophecy in the classroom, the teacher says oh, I have a child with this diagnosis, I’ll treat the child this way or is the teacher going to say, wow, I know a lot about that, so I’m going to make sure the environment works for this child?

Dr. Sheely: And all of these things come into play. The hard thing is that the predictive ability is not there.

Kat Lee: You don’t have enough information to feel settled. There’s an unsettling I find for my parents.

Dr. Sheely: And when parents think about the wide variety of things, especially here in the States, the great number of things that they can do, they want the best choice. But in the end, it’s interesting because we talk about gray area thinking, and that gray area thinking really comes to play here because we don’t know. We can only make an educated guess. We can pull all of the information together, as much as we’re teaching our children to do and then go with the best guess.

Kat Lee: I encourage my parents to be dynamic in their thinking. RDI’s really helped me with this over the years, that you’re making the best decision that you can now, but to try to be flexible in your head from month to month. What do you think about that?

Dr. Sheely: Yes. I think that fits in nicely to how I’m considering the gray area thinking, because you’ll have a plan A, but I think you also want a plan B and a plan C. I think sometimes the plan C should be a plan A.

Kat Lee: Yeah.

Dr. Sheely: So it’s hard to sequence it and prioritize, but sometimes people will say I really feel my child would do better home schooling, but I just can’t do it, so that’s my plan C. And that’s fine. I mean if you can’t do it, don’t do it. It’s going to be worse than a bad teacher in the classroom. But sometimes when people think about the options that they have, they don’t think them through enough to know exactly what that option means.

Dr. Sheely: And so for example, with something like home schooling, for someone who’s never done it, they will be thinking okay, my child’s in school six and a half hours a day, seven hours a day. That means seven hours a day, I’ll be teacher my child. That sounds awful. Actually, that’s not what home schooling is like. Home schooling is a very targeted way to get in the educational material in probably a third or a fourth of the time that it takes in public school.

Dr. Sheely: In public school, a lot of what happens is children are doing, for lack of a better term, busy work, while the teacher is teaching the other children appropriately. So by thinking something like that through and understanding what that means and that maybe you just hire someone else to do it, it broadens your ability to make a good choice. And I only use home schooling because I feel like it has worked for a lot of our parents, but it’s also not worked for a lot of parents and partly for the reasons I just mentioned.

Kat Lee: And knowing it is one of the choices, but that there are more choices than there may seem to be, and I found that doing, to searching, looking, seeking out information is one of the most valuable things parents can do because there are some private schools that are open to part time home schooling and part time going to school. They’re out there. It just takes the seeking, if you will, the looking, not just thinking I’ve only got … well, you just said plan C, not just only thinking I’ve got A or B, and that’s it, no other choices.

Dr. Sheely: I think another thing that’s really important about an educational decision is that you think about the quality of what you want to have happen and not the quantity. If you’re going to have an IEP for your child, a lot of times, there’s a checklist. The child has an autism spectrum disorder, we’re going to do bum, bum, bum, bum, and it has six things lined up, and they say, this is what we’re going to offer you. But maybe your child doesn’t need a shadow in the classroom, and if your child does need that shadow in the classroom, the question you have to ask is how are you going to get rid of that, how is that person going to help your child be independent by working him or herself out of a job, not into a job.

Dr. Sheely: So the quality of what you want is important. I like public school a lot, and the reason I like public school is legally, they have to educate your child. And all of these other places out there, which may have great ideas or be inclusive or do any of number of things, by law, they don’t have to educate your child. And the thinking is it costs so much, I know that they will do a good job for my child, but not necessarily because by law, they can make that choice.

Kat Lee: One of the things that struck me about what you said is you have a checklist, and then that’s not the end of it. You should ask why and how and when, and I think parents are hesitant to ask questions. It’s one of the things I really talk to moms and dads about. It’s okay to ask questions. And if the person you’re asking isn’t acting like it’s okay, it’s still okay.

Dr. Sheely: And that ability to formulate questions sometimes happens before you go into an IEP meeting. So I think it’s important for parents to go into an IEP realizing that this is a legal document they’re creating, and that they have to know what’s best for their child, what they want that to look like, and to go in with that in mind, rather than to simply respond to what’s available in this school.

Dr. Sheely: A good example of that is speech therapy. And a lot of times parents with children who don’t need speech therapy at all will be given speech therapy. And speech therapists … by the way, I love speech therapists … will come in the room with four or five kids and do a half hour, or the kids will go out, and it’s really not about communication at that point. It’s really about speech therapy. And so if a parent has been offered speech therapy, they really need to be writing into the IEP qualitatively rather than quantitatively what does that look like, is it going to look at communication rather than the acquisition of language.

Kat Lee: So sometimes you find yourself with your child in a situation that you start to recognize school wise is not the right fit, but deciding to change is such an ordeal for parents. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s disrupting the boat. So they’re on this boat, and it’s a leaky boat, but it’s still on top of the water, and I’m afraid to change because I don’t know what’s going to happen on this other boat.

Dr. Sheely: You know, that fear of the unknown is something that we all hate. We hate it for our children’s school. We hate it for ourselves as well. So you magnify that fear and dislike of the unknown and change as well. You magnify that by having this wonderful human being who trusts you to make the best decision for him or her. And then you think I can do my best, but what if my best is wrong, or it takes us down a path where the boat is even leakier, or they give us some kind of a life vest and say don’t take it off.

Kat Lee: It’s scary. It’s scary because when you really think about it, and I remember going through this, your child is at school for a fairly significant amount of time during their lifetime. So you want that time to be really spent well, because time is such a resource for us. It’s not that we want every minute to be … because we know that’s unhealthy, but it’s that overall time and know as a mom when you start thinking about that, and sometimes I’ve seen Dr. Sheely, parents just not think about it. They go I just can’t think about it. So it’s kind of the opposite. But either way, I’ve seen this turmoil.

Dr. Sheely: I see the turmoil as well, and I think the turmoil becomes even more magnified when you have a child who can’t express or use their memory to tell you what’s going on. It doesn’t mean that they don’t remember what happens, but they don’t know how to formulate that into information for you that you can use later. And so it becomes really imperative to be in touch with the teacher in the classroom, and I really … I really suggest to my parents that they form a working relationship with that teacher. And by that, I don’t mean if you don’t do this, let me tell you what’s going to happen. But I’m here to make this work for my child and for you.

Dr. Sheely: And so whatever it takes, I want you to know that I’m here to make that happen. Going in with an attitude like that helps that teacher feel not on the spot but supported, and more likely to say to you, I don’t know what happened today, but maybe you can help me figure this out. And what a wonderful relationship to have where you can really get on the same page, and you know that nobody will love your child like you do, but you’ve got a teacher that cares about your child.

Kat Lee: Well, I have so many teachers in my family, and I was giggling to myself when you were saying you love public school because they’re all public school teachers. So I’m going to be one of the first people to say yes to teachers, but I also can tell you, and I also have many friends who are teachers, that they value the input of parents and one of their heartbreaks is when parents aren’t involved, because most teachers know either intuitively or from experience or both, that the involvement of parents is key to their child’s future. So they want that relationship you’re talking about.

Dr. Sheely: I think they do. I was a public school teacher also. When I say I love public school, I’m coming from that same place. I taught public school for almost 10 years, and I really loved it. And I have to say that whether your child has a diagnosis or not, teachers notice when parents are coming in and saying what can I do to help you, what do I need to be doing at home to make sure my child is prepared to graduate second grade strong.

Kat Lee: I love your perspective as a teacher and a parent. You have two lovely daughters. I think parents, and I find this in parents whether the children are typically developing or not, feel they’ll be intruding, that it’s an intrusive thing. You do have parents who take a more direct role almost telling the teacher what to do. I always cautious against that … I always say … again, I have teachers in my family. The classroom is their classroom. They have to be responsible for their classroom. But you know, your experience as a teacher really sings out to me, telling parents it’s okay to form that relationship with you.

Dr. Sheely: Yeah, and it’s important to form, and I’m also thinking about some of the options that are available to parents here in Houston. I really don’t know what’s available around the world. But in Houston, there are some schools where they actually … their mission is to help the child become an independent learner, and so what they do is they make sure that every child is positioned where that child needs to be. So just because you’re in the eighth grade doesn’t mean you’re going to be doing geometry. You’re going to be doing what you need to do to become an independent learner.

Dr. Sheely: And the way they track that is if the child can get most of the homework done during the school day and take home a half hour to 45 minutes at night. Now think about that. How many parents, Katherine, have you and I spoken with, where they say, all I do is homework? I spend three …. this is not an exaggeration. Three to four hours a night doing homework with my child.

Kat Lee: Yes.

Dr. Sheely: And what it means is that the child isn’t being taught during the day and is going home and the parent is doing all of that teaching because the child just doesn’t know what it is. That’s one of those situations where I say to the parent, you know, for an hour and a half day, you could home school. And then could do whatever you want. You could go ice skating at the galleria.

Kat Lee: Well, really you are home schooling if it’s three to four hours.

Dr. Sheely: Yeah. And it’s not efficient because you’re teaching something that your child is not cognitively ready for, so you’re pushing information in a static way that is not developing thinking. It’s getting through the homework.

Kat Lee: One of the things I wanted to do, and I think this is a nice segue from what you’re talking about is just encourage parents that it’s okay to think about all the choices you have. It’s good to shake yourself out of the static, even if you’ve been in a certain situation. If it’s not working for you, not working for your child, you don’t need anybody’s permission to make a change. Some people make you feel like you need permission, unfortunately, but you have to … you talk so much about noise, and sometimes, parents are hearing the noise of one or two individuals who say don’t rock the boat.

Kat Lee: And I say if you need to rock the boat to keep it from leaking, then you need to rock it, right?

Dr. Sheely: Yeah. There seem to be extremes. Don’t rock the boat or hire an attorney, and somewhere in the middle of that is a way to work with the teacher and probably the school district.

Kat Lee: Finally, a lot of my parents this time a year talk to me about RDI and how do I … my child goes to school. I know that goals aren’t being … not only not targeted, but sometimes feel that things are being worked against. And then how do I fit in time with my child around the school paradigm, which I do think home schooling can really help with that, but as we say, it’s not for everyone. What do you tell parents?

Dr. Sheely: And also, even the example I gave of the school where they’re helping the children become independent with the school work doesn’t mean they’re helping the children become good thinkers. And the whole point of RDI is that we want our children to become independent in the way that they’re going to become independent is by learning to think and to use their brains in a way that they need to be used.

Dr. Sheely: So I guess that parents, what we have to realize is that education is what it is, and I can’t speak to education around the world, but I can speak to education in Texas, which has become very standardized test oriented. So you used to have … wow, I had a great year last year with my child’s third grade teacher, they explored this, and they way they did this project, and they did little group things, and it was an amazing year. You don’t see that anymore, because the teachers are held accountable for those Texas state standardized scores.

Dr. Sheely: So parents have to realize that they may have only a certain amount of time every day when they can actually work on developing their child’s mind. It’s not just children on the spectrum or children with developmental differences or ADHD. This is the state of education.

Kat Lee: I think it takes us as parents being mindful about that state and understanding that we’re going to have to still have that space and time to guide. It’s so important. And we, in some sense, have to fight for that time, I think.

Dr. Sheely: Yeah. Well, and August is an exciting time. Kids get very excited about buying new school clothes and getting all their school supplies. So to build on that excitement and to make sure that as best you can, you position your child to be involved in a year of growth. And part of that growth, particularly for a child on the spectrum is going to occur outside the public, private, school setting.

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