Dear Ms. Bean: A Back to School Letter
Every September, my autistic son gets a new teacher. Every September, I write a letter to his teacher introducing him, his strengths and his weaknesses. I limit my letter to one typed page with cordial and respectful language, and try to stick to 4 or 5 main points so that the teacher can help my son succeed.
I usually wait until the second or third day of school before giving the letter to the teacher, because I believe it is important for teachers to make their own observations before I inject my observations.
Since my son was mainstreamed a few years ago, most of his classroom teachers have no training in special education — which works well for my son, since an open mind and positive attitude can sometimes go further than formal education in the world of autism.
Below is a composite of what I’ve written to teachers over the years. It is my hope that other parents can use this letter as a template to introduce their children with special needs to a new teacher, and work with the teachers as a team.
Dear Ms. Bean,
Thank you so much for allowing Louie to visit your classroom last week. The visit helped greatly in preparing him for the new school year. As you already know, Louie has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Now that you’ve had the opportunity to form your own first impression of him, I thought you would appreciate an update about Louie’s emerging skills, as well as some tips for working with him.
The type of autism that affects Louie is hyperlexia, which is characterized by an early facility with letters and numbers (he taught himself to read as a baby), but complicated by low comprehension and severe anxiety. Louie excels at spelling and phonics – or any type of “decoding” – but he may not understand connected text. He has the most difficulty understanding spoken instructions, but does better with written instructions. He enjoys having a checklist or job chart as a reference. Over the summer he began working through the book “Autism and Reading Comprehension” by Joseph Porter, which starts at a very simple level of comprehension, and we have seen Louie make noticeable gains in this area.
Louie has been struggling with math. He is able to do simple addition and subtraction by visualizing a number line in his mind and counting on it. He does multiplication by visualizing an array in his mind and counting on it. He becomes frustrated with larger number groups because it takes him too long to count it accurately in his mind. We have tried many strategies to teach mathematical concepts, and he does well with manipulatives and other visual, sensory-based techniques.
Louie may repeat himself or “get stuck” on a specific topic. When he perseverates like this, we recently discovered that he can overcome it by writing a few sentences about the topic. His perseveration is usually a reflection of his anxiety level, and he needs to be re-directed to calming strategies such as deep breathing, visualization or a new task. Lunch and recess are the most confusing times of the school day for Louie because of his delays in social skills. He appreciates gentle guidance and companionship when he is confused. He is highly sensitive to body language and tone of voice.
Louie may have difficulty sitting, especially for group activities. Two strategies that help in this situation are asking him to walk around for a minute (or run an errand), or offering him a bean bag seat. The funny thing about Louie is that he may be paying close attention when he appears inattentive, and he may be ignoring you when he appears to be attentive.
Louie loves to be helpful, and is eager to please the adults in his life. He enjoys the routines and activities of the school day. He is a fun-loving, hard-working kid – an inspiration to everyone who gets to know him. We are looking forward to a wonderful school year with exciting new developments for him.