How to Navigate the School System

Have you ever tried to put a puzzle pieces together without having a picture of the entire assembled puzzle?  If not, I can assure you it would be a very frustrating experience.

Let’s say that your child is smart, or at least of average intelligence.  But s/he struggles in school.  Every day is a tug of war to get your child out of bed.  “I don’t want to go, it’s boring!”  You’re ready to tear your hair out!

In this article, I will introduce you to a bird’s eye view of a way through the maze of the public school system.

school success for children with autism Asperger's

photo credit: Mecookie on Flickr

I picked this information up from reading a book called School Success for Kids With Asperger’s Syndrome: A Practical Guide for Parents and Teachers, by Stephan M. Silverman, PhD, and Mr. Rich Weinfeld.  In their chapter on working with the school system, they share a road map to help us better understand how a child goes from having difficulties at school to receiving the appropriate services.

A preliminary word to the wise is to live by the Golden Mean.  Some parents become defensive and combative with the school system, believing that the school is making every decision based on finances only, especially in this time of crunched school budgets.  They may think that the school system does not have their child’s best interest in mind.

On the other hand, there are parents who may be too trusting or not assertive enough.  They may just sit back and let whatever happens happen.

I believe in assertive advocacy.  Learn as much as you can about your child’s condition as you can.  Attend support groups and education groups in your community.  Go to conferences about autism.  Get involved with your local autism society chapter.  By networking and learning, you will develop some of the parent smarts needed to advocate effectively for your child.

Also, see if you can volunteer in some way, either on the parent-teacher committee, as a volunteer in your child’s classroom, or in any other capacity.  By becoming someone who contributes to the school, you will be seen as an ally versus an enemy.

The first thing that you will want to do, if you are a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, is to request a parent/teacher conference.

In this conference, you will work together to share information about the child, recommend preliminary classroom and home adjustments, and implement strategies.  Key people who may be present at the meeting would be the school psychologist, your child’s teacher, a speech therapist, and an occupational therapist, along with the director of special education for the school district, a school social worker, and the principal.

Based on the initial parent-teacher conference, the solutions discussed will be implemented at school and at home.  They will then be monitored for a period of time.

However, if trouble still continues with your child’s academic performance, it may be time to request a formal child study meeting. This is where other specialists within the school district would be called upon to assess and evaluate your child for a possible learning disability.

Depending on the nature of the disability, your child may qualify either for a 504 plan or an IEP (Individualized Education Program).

It can be helpful to hire an educational consultant or attorney who is well versed in your rights as a parent of a child with Aspergers.  This consultant will review all your child’s records, observe your child in the classroom, and speak informally with the teachers and other decision makers.  Some parents can find it relieving not to have to always be on guard, and to speak their minds freely.  Knowledge and persistence, again, are the hallmarks of effective consultants.

A 504 Plan usually provides only for accommodations.  These accommodations could include giving the child more time to take a timed test; instructions given in a way that the child can best understand (using a picture schedule, for example); or having a case manager, who is a teacher assigned to help the child with areas such as organizational and study skills.

An IEP Plan is much more detailed and specific, and contains goals and objectives that are carefully monitored throughout the school year.  This plan is more intensive, and is meant to help the child make continuous progress toward areas affected by his/her areas of challenge.  Usually a special education teacher will be involved in this type of plan.  An IEP Plan may target social skills, organization skills, written language skills. Each plan is uniquely designed to the specific strengths and areas of growth of your particular child.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the maze that is the public education school system.

What have been your experiences?

What further questions do you have?  Please let me know.  I look forward to your comments.

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 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

Are you tired of feeling alone, like you're the only one in this world? Please join the Thrive with Aspergers Community to connect with others just like you!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Sue

    My son is 8 years old and only has a 504 at school, (they allow him to get up and walk around) I have tried to get him his own aide, tutor, anything to help him and I keep being told : He doesnt qualify because he is not failing academically. Any suggestions? Homework is a long stessful process at home and I cant afford a private tutor.

  • steveborgman

    Sue, can you tell me a little more? I would think that, with a 504, there might be a teacher who serves as his case manager, and that should include extra tutoring, I would think. Does he have a specific diagnosis? If so, let me know, because that can be helpful in letting you know what you can request. Also, does he see a therapist or psychiatrist? If so, that professional can also give you guidance with your 504 plan. Keep me posted.

  • steveborgman

    Sue, I received this response from a consultant in California:
    “Here is a list of categories that warrant an IEP… from the state of CA. We are under a category that will last until my child is 8 years old called “Delayed Speech.” We out grew that classification a few years ago but in the future we will continue to stay on an IEP from spectrum issues. I would talk close to the professionals that you work with including your Dr.’s and your state advocate. Every state is mandated to have an agency that is apart from the schools to help parents w/ disabilities get through the maze at school to get help w/ their IEP, 504’s, etc… Good Luck! Oh… on the list below.. a professional outside of school can give you something in writing for the school to consider accepting one of the categories below… they may accept it entirely or test in concert w/ your people.
    * autism or autistic-like behaviors
    * deaf-blindness
    * deafness
    * emotional disturbance
    * hearing impairment
    * mental retardation
    * multiple disabilities
    * orthopedic impairment
    * other health impairment
    * specific learning disabilities
    * speech or language impairment
    * traumatic brain injury
    * visual impairment including blindness “

  • steveborgman

    Sue, here is another response from a LinkedIn colleague:

    “Steve, I would also suggest to go on This is a wonderful website for special education law. Intelligence has nothing to do with what has happened to kids on the autism spectrum. This involves the nervous system and how the messages are being compromised in the way they are being delivered to the brain. They should be arriving in a synchronous manner but they are arriving at different times. This creates alot of dysregulation and slows down the processing speed. The brain is inflamed.”

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