When I received the email on Saturday, I have to admit that I was angry. I had communicated with the parents that their child had attempted to look down someone’s shirt in PE the day before. If you teach pubescent students with autism, you know this is normal exploratory behavior. Since the student responded when told ‘no’ and did not continue to try to sneak a peek, I didn’t think anything of it. Nevertheless, I thought parents should be aware of the behavior so I wrote it on the daily log I send home with each student.
On Saturday morning, my inbox had email messages from both parents expressing their frustration that I had not called or emailed to communicate about the behavior. In addition to that, everything else was suddenly ‘wrong.’ My request to sign the student up for a social media account in order to help her connect with typical peers in high school and beyond ‘could only hurt’ the student. The job that our vocational coordinator had worked so hard to secure for the student was inappropriate and might lead to others making fun. The tones of the email was accusatory and angry, and I could feel my temperature rising as I read on. We agreed that a meeting was an order and set up a meeting for this (Monday) morning.
I alerted my instructional coordinator that some disgruntled parents were coming in on Monday. Neither of us completely understood the real problem but she was supportive and concerned, particularly because she would not be able to join us on Monday morning. Our vocational coordinator was able to join me, however, so I felt confident with her ‘back-up’ that we could hold the meeting anyway.
Monday morning arrives. I teach a full morning, but the thought of the upcoming meeting was niggling away in my mind. I dreaded it but needed it to happen so I could move on! Time ticks by. I am in the office, and the students’ mother walks in. She has a stern expression and a tightly drawn mouth. I let her know we would meet in the conference room and we wait for the student’s father to arrive as well. Time CRAWLS. The student’s father arrives, sits down, and…
I explain the behavior, as much as I know about it. I let them know that I use the daily sheets home as a means to communicate and they are free to call or email whenever they have any questions about anything! I tell them it is fairly typical of an adolescent with autism to be curious.
Suddenly we are laughing. We go on to talk about how the student is using scripting more functionally and we share funny anecdotes. We discuss the trouble with the job site—the student’s mother admits that she panicked because she thought the job was in the mall and the student had once gotten lost for a full 20 minutes in the mall and the whole building had to go on lockdown. We discussed other potential jobsites and agreed on a few others what we should try.
And then it was over. Since the meeting, I thought about the time I wasted in anger and anxiety for the meeting to come. I think of the way they must have felt when they read that message on the student’s sheet—maybe they thought I was judging them for their child’s actions or that the peer had gotten really upset. Regarding the job site, maybe they thought the student wouldn’t provide the proper support and they were scared that the student could get lost again. Regardless of what was lost in those initial exchanges, it was regained again within moments of meeting face-to-face.
It is easy to be hard on someone via email. It is much harder to think the worst of someone when you are meeting in person. Parent-teacher conferences, casual conversations, and other interactions between teachers and parents are invaluable. The fear that I saw on the mother’s face as she described the sheer terror of losing her child in the mall for 20 minutes could not have been communicated via phone or email. Neither could the dad’s insistence that his child not use any Google products—although his reasons still sounded just a tad bit paranoid. (Sorry, Google, if you are reading this…and he claims YOU ARE.)
My biggest takeaway from this experience is that some things must be done in person. If you start to feel anxious or concerned about something, schedule a time that the parent can come in and sit down with them. Talk things through with them. Encourage them to come to parent-teacher conferences. Tell stories about what their child does in the classroom and let your appreciation for their child shine through. It may be easier to do things over the phone, but that definitely does not mean that digital communication is superior.