LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With one in 110 children diagnosed with a spectrum disorder, the growing number of parents who are struggling to deal with the issues of autism provides student transporters with an opportunity to offer solutions born from empathy, attendees learned at the 25th Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers National Conference.
“It’s on the job training to be a parent, and it's difficult myth that all will be well. But that's not always how it goes,” said Patrick Mulick, coordinator of special education services at Auburn School District near Seattle and a board-certified behavioral analyst. “The unexpected reality takes place that the child you thought you'd have isn't there.
The session “Working with Families of Children with Autism” on Saturday asked about 100 professionals in attendance to pause and try looking through the eyes of parents who deal with a wide range of emotions about their children who are on the spectrum.
“No one ever wished for their child to have a disability, and we have to keep that in mind,” he added.
Mulick said student transporters should recognize that parents don’t have access to training on how to address their child’s disability and, when they do, it can be extremely expensive. As a result, parents of children with ASD can suffer higher rates of stress, depression, anxiety and even divorce. They also can experience isolation from friends and even family.
He added that student transporters should realize the four stages of adjustment parents go through when having a child with ASD following the initial grief of a diagnosis. These includes the:
- Ostrich phase, when parents don't deny disability but don't realize the full impact of ASD on their child;
- Special designation, or parents realizing their child lives with a disability so they begin to seek help and to ask for special services, such as 504 support, an evaluation and IEP, private therapy, counseling, etc.;
- Normalization, when parents push a child (or the school district) to make the disability less apparent to others and to make them look and act “normal” by spending less time in a special education classroom and becoming involved in more extracurricular activities, and;
- Self-actualization, accepting their child’s difference, supporting their child in learning more about his or her disability and encouraging them to be a self-advocate.
“If we were in their shoes, we'd be doing a lot of the same things. It's tough,” Mulick added. “For us as professionals, we have to move past this.”
He shared several suggestions with student transporters on how they can reach out to parents and provide support, including increased training of staff to understand the various characteristics of autism, even showing a video that depicted the “normal” auditory and visual perception of the sights and sounds of a school bus ride and another showing how a student with autism can experience that same ride.
Mulick said strategies can be as simple as building an emotional connection with parents and asking questions to learn more about individual child behaviors and expectations about the bus ride, as well as understanding student behavioral cycles and triggers, improved collaboration with special education programs and even embracing student and bus location apps that share data with parents.