Asian teenager reading a book in a classroom with his hood up leaning on his hand.

How to Help Teachers Understand and Accommodate Your Autistic Teen8 min read

When the assistant principal at my son’s high school called to tell me that my son was caught skipping class and was being put on in-school detention, she had that tone

Sort of an “I’m exercising my authority – we have a zero tolerance here – and you better be scared because I’m calling your mother” tone.

She said she asked him why he wasn’t in class and that “he gave her some ‘story’ about being in the bathroom, and then he looked away and wouldn’t say anything else”.  [👀😂 I’m chuckling to myself.] I could tell she had no idea that my son was autistic.  She said he was being put on the “skippers list,” so any time he wasn’t in class, I would receive a call.

I heard her out, and when she was finished, I told her:

  1. I don’t mind him being on that list because I’d actually appreciate the call.
  2. He’s autistic, and that’s probably why he looked away and stopped talking…he typically doesn’t ‘lie’. *Check the end of the article for a screenshot of what he said when I asked him why he skipped class.

I went on to explain a few other things, and her demeanor changed completely! When she replied, it was like her mouth had dropped open while I was talking, and she felt bad for the way she spoke about him. I didn’t mean to make her feel bad. I just knew she was misinterpreting his behavior.  From there, she strongly advised that I personally reach out and share the same information with his teachers (apparently, it wasn’t noted anywhere in his file 🤔).

It was a constant battle last year trying to get his teachers to understand that they couldn’t expect the same level of initiative and responsibility from my son. 😖 We jumped through hoops for most of the school year before we finally got his 504 plan implemented.

Here is the email I sent to his teachers after our call:


Hello All,

I spoke with the assistant principal this morning about my son skipping classes, and I also wanted to contact you all about his grades.  I was originally referred to the mailbox in the online portal, but I have not been able to find a mailbox there (or your full names).  So, there are a couple of main points for this email:

  1. I want to tell you a few things about my son to [hopefully] provide some understanding about certain behaviors.
  2. I need your help getting him on track to bring his grades up.

Here’s the info:

My son has Asperger’s/ASD and ADHD (we both do) and his autistic characteristics are often viewed as misbehavior or an unwillingness to participate (mostly to do with his sensory processing and processing speed).  Before we found out what was happening, he would get in trouble for most of these things at home, so I totally understand what it ‘looks like’.  No matter how educated I am about it as a parent, it can still be frustrating in those moments.

  • He is EXTREMELY quiet and speaks with a low/monotone voice.  – He has learned to ‘speak up’ over the years, BUT… his hearing is hypersensitive. For context: He can hear mosquitoes flying, and he doesn’t watch much television, but when he does… it’s on volume 3-5 where no one else can hear it.  My son knows he needs to speak up so others can hear him, but he says that when he speaks loud enough for people to hear him, it actually sounds like someone is standing next to him yelling in his ear.
  • He has anxiety when it comes to speaking in front of other kids and even going outside. For context: When I tell him to go check the mail, he will pace behind the door [for too long] until he’s almost in trouble.  And at his last school, he would stand by the wall during lunch (not eating) and just wait for the bell to ring.
  • His processing is delayed.  When you speak to him, sometimes it will take a long time for him to respond, to the point where it may seem like he’s ignoring you or didn’t hear you.  – He heard you, but it takes a while for it to register.
  • His ‘stimming’ activity is usually twisting or playing with his hair.  – When he’s doing that, he’s thinking.  It helps him keep his train of thought.
  • My son is extremely smart and does not have any learning disabilities, but these other things cause him to fall behind in school.  – He has a hard time finishing work by a ‘deadline’ and/or doing things that require enthusiasm or noise/people.
  • We are [usually] absolute literal thinkers and often do not pick up on indirect or non-verbal communication. For context: If you tell my son he “should clean his desk,” he will only receive it as a suggestion due to the “should” in that sentence (and might not do it).  And if you ask him why he didn’t do it, he will likely give you his literal answer… “Because I didn’t want to.” If you say “Pick up the papers”, he might pick up the papers and just stand there holding them instead of putting them away.
  • He might be viewed as resistant or argumentative because he will ask questions to try to fully understand what someone is saying and/or figure out why he needs to do something.  In the scenario above with the papers, he might try to clarify by asking “Did you want me to put them away too?” – If you ever experience this, he is NOT trying to be disrespectful, I promise!
  • On the extreme side: If you ask my son if he ‘has’ a name, he might just say “Yes” (but this is a common enough occurrence now that he may know that he needs to tell the person what his name is).
  • Stress makes all of these things a lot worse, and we do have a stressful situation at home right now (due to my own condition) – I am 100% sure it’s compounding the problem at school.

I know you all have a lot of students to work with, so I am not asking for any exceptions.  But I hope this helps shed some light on how his brain works.

He is really a good kid and I’m just trying to make sure the awareness is there because I had the same issues when I was his age – only I didn’t have a diagnosis and these characteristics just made life… difficult, to say the least.

Here is what we are doing at home to help him get back on track, and the help we need from you: 

Classwork

  • We are working with his doctor to get him on the right dosage of ADHD meds.  We put him on Adderall and implemented the 504 last year, which enabled him to recover from failing -and- end the year with A’s and B’s.  Doc switched his meds due to weight loss, so we just started something newHelp Needed: Please keep this in mind and let me know if you notice any degradation or improvements with his work habits.
  • I have been inquiring with him about make-up work and I can make sure he does it.  BUT he is not a reliable source as far as what needs to be done. Help Needed: If you will tell me specifically what he can do to bring his grade up in your respective classes, I will make sure he gets it done.  I would need to know (only for previous zeros/missing assignments that he can make up):
    • Specifically what he can and needs to do in order to turn his grade around over the next couple weeks (before grading period ends), if that’s even possible at this point.
    • Where to find and how to correlate any related materials he might need to complete the assignments.

I will print out all the zeros and missing assignments and we will cross them out as he completes them, but I need to know which assignments CAN be made up and the best place to start.

What hasn’t worked in the past is when we’ve been told: “Your son knows what he needs to do.”  “Your son knows where to find everything.”  “We gave him a letter and he was supposed to let you know.”  “All the assignments are in the portal and all related materials are in Google classroom.”

I know this might sound like a lot to ask, but I NEED explicit instructions directly from the teachers so that:

  • I can be confident that I know exactly what he can/needs to do and make sure he gets it done without me being confused by his vague explanations (which leads to me having to ‘interrogate’, which eventually leads to him going mute).
  • HE knows WE are on the same page.  Aside from the autism, he is still a teenager, and I can’t always tell when he’s struggling or being evasive intentionally.  If I can show him the guidance and instructions you provide me with, then there’s no room for debate (and then I can actually help him if he doesn’t understand).

I am not asking for a rundown of everything that’s communicated in class daily.  We only need this level of help ONE time and only regarding missing assignments that he can make up (and/or anything he can do for extra credit).

Stress/Nutrition

  • I am doing my best to alleviate the stress at home. Help Needed: Only prayer can help here.  Please pray for us!
  • I think not eating might be impacting his performance as well.  He doesn’t eat unless I make sure, so I am doing my best to make sure he takes the time to eat breakfast before he goes to school.  It’s because sometimes we don’t sense hunger, forget to eat, or he might not want to get in line or sit with the kids. Help Needed: Whoever has him right before lunch, IF you think about it, please encourage him to eat lunch or ask him if he is going to eat lunch (to make him think about it).  – I’m just hoping this might help.

Thank you all for taking the time to read all of this.  I realize that a parent/teacher conference probably would have been more appropriate.  It just takes me a while to articulate my thoughts, I get derailed by questions during tough conversations, and I tend to communicate better with writing.

Respectfully,

Mom


P.S.  – This is what my son said when I asked why he skipped class:

*Perfect example of what I described above.

“Why did you skip class yesterday”  – “Because I didn’t want to go and I would’ve been late anyways so I just didn’t go”

What do you think?

What does advocating look like for you?

Who can relate?

Talk to me in the comments and let me know I am not alone 🌹🙏❤.

Previously Published on ShellyWill.com

Shelly Willoughby

Instructor at Remote Work Help
Shelly is a retired project manager and technical writer. She now writes about travel and autism awareness with articles in Autism Parenting Magazine and other publications. Autistic herself, Shelly runs two small businesses: www.swagimports.com and www.sharemyniche.com. She has a passion for helping people discover and monetize their marketable talents, especially within the neurodivergent community. She has a tri-paw (three-legged Bengal cat) named Lagertha. Some of her special interests include unicorns, dragons, and wild cats. You can find Shelly's personal blog at www.shellywill.com.

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