Susan's Blog

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Autism and the School Board

I had an email question sent to me recently that I thought was an important one:

As a board of education member, and a parent of a child with autism, can you tell me what do these board members most need to hear? What can I say to help them understand the importance of programs such as ours?

First thing is to think politically. This is not meant disparagingly; it is a reality. The Board of Education or School Committee are a public body, probably volunteers, who probably believe that they are doing a great job, and who probably believe the school system is excellent, or they want it to be, so I always take that perspective into account when I say anything public to my colleagues on the School Committee. So, I would start with the positives. There are always positive things you can say, about the staff that work there, a particular strong point of the classroom, the setting, the services, the inclusiveness. In what ways, specifically, has the program done a good job? How has your (or other children) progressed within that program?

Then you can say something like, “Of course, in this world, nothing is perfect,” maybe even smile at them, and then, “So I have a few observations and suggestions for you.” Or, before you get to that, you can give a few stunning examples of the extremes that you deal with having a child on the spectrum. If you do a negative story, do a positive one, too. It is a way of engaging the audience and keeping them on your side.

It also may help to have a one-pager fact sheet for them to follow along. If you want to emphasize the difficulties particular to ASD, use a few bullet point facts, like how the Federal General Accounting Office recommends early intervention, social skill-building, etc. (you might want to look that up, but there was a GAO report last year on autism). You might talk about the numbers of kids served in your town’s program, and how they are progressing.

If you are personable, factual, as positive as possible while still being honest, and engaging, you will have automatic credibility, and that’s most of the battle right there.

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