As Sunday School resumes and teachers prepare to receive their students, a difficulty we’ve discussed before rears its head: many of our students have special needs, but our volunteer teachers are untrained and don’t know what the kids will need to maximize their experience in our classrooms. We’re afraid to ask for fear of offending or upsetting parents, and so often the parents keep quiet. We need to communicate lovingly and openly, and yet we don’t know how to start the conversation.
Maura Oprisko writes The Least of These, a blog focused on “Raising autism in the Church, with dignity”, offering us a welcome inside look at how families with special needs navigate the Orthodox Church — from the logistics of managing daily life in the parish and at home, to the ways in which embracing holy wisdom and the love of Christ transforms their experience. Maura is smart and funny, and her engaging style draws us in and makes us feel like we know her, like we’re already friends. She creates a needed space for community for parents of children with special needs, as well as a place for anyone who hopes to serve their students (or just the human beings they meet every day) in a more useful way.
As the new school year begins and we prepare to receive our students, we reach for ways to bridge that gap and open communication with parents. Maura has generously offered a guest post — an open letter to Sunday School teachers — and included a real, tangible starting place for that conversation in your classroom.
Dear Sunday School Teachers,
My name’s Maura. This is my son, William. He has autism. And he’s going to be in your class this year.
I realize it would probably be easier on you if parents really did that. But we mostly don’t, because, like many of you, we’re not sure how to approach this.
Let’s face it. It’s a bag full of awkward. As a parent, I don’t want to burden you or seem demanding. And, on your end, it’s too scary a question to ask a parent directly—does your child have special needs? Because…what if I didn’t know? What if you’re wrong?
So, since we’re strangers, we’re just going to go ahead and empty our awkward bag on the table.
But before we do, you’ll need to know a couple things. I can’t answer all your questions for you, because the spectrum has as many different cases on it as there are people, so your best information will come from the family. Got questions you feel like you can’t ask them? I’m right there with you, and we’ll address those. But there are two things I recommend doing first, before we get to the un-askables:
1. Get to know the families of all your students before you start asking questions (as best you can, of course, since I’m sure in some cases, numbers are daunting). Talk with them at coffee hour, follow them on Pinterest and share educational pins, invite everyone over for a cookout—whatever you do, you might be surprised at how much info parents offer up without you asking.
2. Send out a questionnaire for all your parents to fill out. I’ve provided a free one for you at the end of this post. This way, no one is singled out, and your job becomes easier with everyone—not just your special needs kids.
Whenever I’ve had people push through their nervousness to ask me awkward questions, I mostly see love coming through. So I’m not insulted, but oftentimes they come from an inaccurate starting point, which can be uncomfortable.
Hopefully addressing the “untouchable” questions guides the thought process, and gives you some ideas of better questions to ask, or just more comfortable ways to ask the same things.
1. What is your child good at? Well, he’s good at lots of things, but from what we can tell so far, he’s not a prodigy. He’s an average kid who happens to have autism.
A few people have asked me what his “talent” is, but that’s a misnomer. It’s true; some autistic people are savants. Savants make the news features, but most autistic people don’t. Their skills are just quirky. Maybe they can quote Finding Nemo from start to finish (been there), or maybe they can remember every birthday of every person they’ve ever met (seen that), but it doesn’t mean he’s the next Mozart.
If, when you ask what he’s good at, you’re looking for his strengths or his functional skills (which is actually a good way to ask this question), I’d be happy to share William’s with you. But this is one of those cases that your relationship with the parents of your students will provide you with the most valuable information
2. What is your child capable of understanding? At any given moment, I don’t even know how much he’s really getting. What I do know is that he is capable of understanding anything a typical 7 year old can understand. Whether he’ll hear it and be able to focus on it…that depends. And neither you nor I will likely know the difference, because he doesn’t have that “Ohhhh I get it!” face that most kids do, and he doesn’t furrow his brow when he’s confused.
But since *right now* could always be that moment of understanding, we just assume it is. We don’t talk about him like he’s not there, laugh at him, or shrug it off if he gets blamed for something he didn’t do.
Now, I actually homeschool William. So from a classroom perspective, in cases that require mastery of a concept before moving on, I get that information elsewhere. I look for understanding by asking questions and looking for evidence of mastery (e.g. he can build the number “136” out of manipulatives during our study on place value) before I move on.
3. What’s going to set him off? Good one. Autistic meltdowns are day-ruiners. Here’s a few common triggers:
- Loud, sudden noises
- Being denied access to a desired activity or item
- Bright or flickering lights
- Strong perfume or incense
- Sudden, unexpected movements
- A change in schedule
- No access to anything familiar or comfortable
- Frustration with being wrong, or being unable to communicate
I don’t want you to give him whatever he wants, or let him think he’s always right, or never change the regular schedule. Just try to give him fair warning when changes are coming, and bribe the heck out of him. No really. You want the Legos? Okay, sit at the table with us for fifteen minutes, and then you can build for five. Or, if you say prayers with us, I’ll give you a snack.
4. Do I need to make sure he understands everything in the lesson? No. A friend of mine who works with William one-on-one in Sunday school pointed out to me that it’s important to pick your battles. If he doesn’t want to do the craft, don’t make him do the craft. But does he understand that we’re celebrating the Nativity of the Theotokos today? Yeah? Then we’re good. Let him read his truck book in peace.
5. Can I teach him myself, without help? While I’m sure you’re a perfectly capable teacher, it’s a bad idea. You have a class full of children to manage, and William’s needs will hijack all of them. It’s important that someone else is in the room working only with him and directing his attention, again and again, to you as the teacher. If that has to be me, I’m fine with that. Don’t be afraid to ask.
6. Will he be disruptive to my class? And what should I do if a meltdown occurs?
He might disrupt. Some of those disruptions are mildly annoying, in which case, he can be managed with reasonable classroom management techniques.
But there are other times it’s full-on biting, screaming, crying, kicking, disrobing, or any number of upsetting scenes. In those cases, if I haven’t already provided you with a plan, just come get me.
I don’t love seeing this happen to my son, just like you wouldn’t love the sight of your own children’s teacher ushering them to you while they cradle a broken arm, but as a parent, you’re the one. You’re the safe spot. And I want to be there for him as much as he wants me in those bad moments.
Please know that I appreciate you; I know what work it is to try to speak to my child’s unique situation, what mental anguish it is to feel desperate to get through to him. Your work is eternal, and I love you for it.
Thank you for your heart, and for the great service you do for our church.
Please download and print this questionnaire as a token of my thanks.