For over five decades, I’ve had the privilege of serving students with autism and developmental disabilities and their families. I’ve been employed as a teacher, administrator, professor, consultant, and advocate in public, private, nonprofit, and for-profit settings, working in preschools, primary, middle, secondary, and university programs. I’ve observed programs across the United Sates and even globally. During these years, I’ve spoken with thousands of parents, and have heard a common theme from parents across all walks of life, from affluent families in cities and suburbs to immigrant farm workers. All of these parents wish for the same thing. They want their children to receive an education that will help them to become productive adults who will be accepted and fulfilled within their community.
The purpose of education is to guide students toward this goal – to maximize their potential and independence, and to prepare all individuals to live, work, and recreate as participating members of their community. In the 1980’s, in the beginning of my career, employment outcomes for adults with ASD were dismal (Szatmari, 1989). Since then, over the past several decades, there’s been a plethora of research in the area of transition; and, yet, currently, despite all the research and advances in the field of special education, the same low rate of unemployment and underemployment persists (Anderson, Butt, & Sarsony, 2021).
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provided a framework to address the grave need for supports to fully include all persons in their communities. The New Freedom Initiative (2001) recognized that people with disabilities need a complete and appropriate education in order to join their communities as equal members. The Olmstead decision (Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S.581) mandated that services to people with disabilities be provided in the most integrated settings appropriate for their needs. These legislative initiatives were put forth to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of society by increasing access to universally designed programs.
However, today parents still search for effective school programs that will accomplish the goals set forth in these twenty-year-old initiatives. To meet these goals, families need school partnerships so that their sons and daughters may grow into independent productive adults. As stated in these initiatives, the focus of curriculum needs to be redirected toward fostering necessary lifelong skills and knowledge that enable students to succeed in either postsecondary education or employment.
Educators and parents must of necessity become true partners. The commitment to include, listen, hear, respect, and engage parents is paramount in fostering student growth and enhancing interaction at school and in the home. In this article, Carly Werner, Director of Boca School for Autism, a school focused on transition for middle and high school students with autism, and I suggest critical avenues in which schools can engage and support parents to maximize student potential.
Specifically, we highlight some practical ways in which schools and parents can work together to plan and reinforce learning, beginning with assessment and information gathering. The most valuable information about students’ characteristics, interests, preferences, and behavioral triggers can be found in the reports of parents. Prior to beginning to build a program for any student, parents should be sought out and enlisted as partners in the process. Intake questionnaires, such as the Ziggurat Underlying Character Checklist (UCC) (Aspy & Grossman, 20007: Myles, et al, 2007), including an Inventory of Individual Skills and Strengths (ISSI), provide invaluable information. The information gathered through the use of questionnaires can be utilized to determine the students’ skills so that instruction can be customized to build upon students’ strengths.
Teachers also will find that information and insights they learn from discussions with parents is helpful in the process of building self-determination competency. Self-determination is a critical ability for adult independent living, yet it is not routinely found in IEPs or curriculum (Shogren, Raley, Burke, & Wehmeyer, 2019). Parental input will enable teachers to identify areas of strength and weakness on which to focus, and to target self-determination skills that will be used at home and in the community. Home life for the entire family will benefit from students’ improved self-determination competence. This is clearly an instructional domain that benefits from parent-teacher collaboration, one in which teachers and parents need each other.
One suggestion for raising the quality of self-determination instruction is for teachers and clinicians to utilize the Self-Determination Inventory System (SDIS) (Shogren, et al. 2019). The SDIS is a useful tool for:
- Identifying areas of strength and areas in need of instruction,
- Monitoring students’ progress in the development of self-determination skills over time, and
- Managing and maintaining progress records.
When used as an information gathering tool with parents and students, this instrument yields meaningful information that can serve as a foundation for academic, social, communication, and transition program development.
A key factor to successful engagement of families involves the recognition and appreciation of familial and cultural values. Students with ASD can be found across ethnicities and cultures (West & Chen, 2012). This is especially challenging when students are from cultures that are foreign to the teacher. Teacher preparation courses offer an ideal platform to increase educator’s knowledge about varied cultures, diverse ways of thinking, and alternative approaches to foster pluralistic perspectives. Understanding, respecting, and valuing differences will enable educators to see the similarities inherent in parents across cultures and will help educators tailor their instruction to be inclusive and sensitive of the student’s culture.
Parents and teachers should come together to identify goals, plan programs, and examine progress. Research has shown that frequent home-school communication positively impacts community living. Schools can open the door for meaningful family participation, and can move beyond traditional family involvement practices, which have proven insufficient (Eisler, Godber, & Christensen, 2002). Teachers might invite parents to form a joint committee of parents and faculty for the purpose of informally sharing information and supporting one another. In this committee, no one should be considered an expert. We’re learning together and exploring ideas as a team.
In conclusion, frequent positive school–parent collaboration is an essential component of successful transition programming. In this article, we’ve explored the areas of information gathering, self-determination, cultural appreciation, and committee engagement, in which schools and families can join forces to prepare students for adulthood. Jointly completing a questionnaire as a means to arrive at common ground in identifying goals was suggested as an initial step in the collaboration process. When educators listen to parents as they discuss their son’s or daughter’s strengths, preferences and interests, the design of educational plans can be relevant to both school and at home settings. Also, by focusing on building self-determination competence, schools and families can empower young adults to be meaningful participants in their community. Additionally, engaging parents in active reciprocal committees can foster appreciation of each party’s roles in relation to student development. By applying these strategies, schools and parents may be able to dramatically improve school outcomes.
Dianne Zager, PhD, is Chancellor and Carly Werner, MEd, MS, is School Director at Boca School for Autism. For further information, contact Dr. Dianne Zager, Chancellor for Boca School for Autism, at email@example.com or (914) 584-9338.
Anderson C, Butt C, Sarsony C. (2021).Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum and Early Employment-Related Experiences: Aspirations and Obstacles. Journal Autism Developmental Disorders, 51(1), 88-105.
Aspy, R., & Grossman, B. G. (2007). The Ziggurat model: A framework for designing comprehensive interventions for individuals with high-functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Esler, A. N., Godber, Y., & Christenson, S. L. (2002). Best Practices in Supporting Home-School Collaboration. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology IV (pp. 389–411). National Association of School Psychologists.
Garbacz, A., Godfrey, E., Rowe, D. A., & Kittelman, A. (2022). Increasing Parent Collaboration in the Implementation of Effective Practices. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 54(5), 324–327.
Myles, B.S., Grossman, B.G., Aspy, R., Henry, S.A., & Coffin, A.B., (2007). Planning a Comprehensive Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders Using Evidence-Based Practices, Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 2007, 42(4), 398–409
Shogren, K. A., Raley, S. K., Burke, K. M., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2019). The Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction Teacher’s Guide. Lawrence, KS: Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities.
Szatmari, P., Bartolucci, G., Bremner, R., Bond, S., & Rich, S. (1989). A follow-up study of high-functioning autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19(2), 213–225.