Why communication and talking about school is important
Communication and talking about school with children and teenagers is important. It:
- shows you’re interested in your child’s learning experiences, which helps to motivate your child
- is one way of finding out about what’s happening at school
- helps you identify your child’s challenges and ways to best support your child.
Communication about school is important for all children. For autistic children and teenagers, communication might include talking and non-verbal communication.
Supporting autistic children and teenagers to communicate about school
Autistic children and teenagers have a range of communication skills and abilities. Some autistic children have very good communication skills, whereas others find it very hard to communicate with other people. Also, some autistic children find it difficult to understand or use spoken language, or they might have no language at all.
Also, like all children and teenagers, autistic children and teenagers can find it hard to tell you about their school day. This might be because they find it hard to sum up a whole day of learning and socialising. They might also feel their school experiences are private and not want to share them. Or they might think you already know about their day.
This means autistic children and teenagers might need support to communicate about their school experiences. This support might include:
- general strategies like timing, questioning, practising and role-modelling
- specific strategies for children who don’t have much language or are non-verbal.
Strategies to encourage autistic children and teenagers to communicate about school
Your child might be more likely to tell you about their day at school if you can get the timing right:
- Avoid asking your child a lot of questions straight after school, which can be overwhelming. It’s OK to try a general question like ‘Did you have a good day?’ but you might not get an answer.
- Give your child some time to relax and have a snack before you ask questions about their day.
- Try communicating about school at the same time each day so it becomes part of your child’s routine. For example, you could regularly ask about school after your child has had a snack in the afternoon.
- Try talking with your child while you’re doing a shared activity like preparing dinner. This can make it feel more comfortable and relaxed for your child.
- Follow your child’s lead. For example, be ready to stop and listen if your child mentions school.
- Have several smaller conversations throughout the afternoon or evening, if that works for your child.
The right kind of questions might encourage your child to share information:
- Use your child’s name and make sure you’ve got their attention before asking a question.
- Keep questions short and specific – for example, ‘Who did you sit with at lunch?’, ‘Did you enjoy science today?’ or ‘Can you tell me one thing about your favourite class today?’
- Avoid open-ended questions like ‘How was your day?’
- Start with yes/no questions if your child finds it hard to talk about school. You can build up to longer answers.
- Try questions about a friend’s school day to help start the conversation.
- Avoid asking too many questions.
- Give your child time to process the question and respond.
Practising and role-modelling
You can create a positive environment for communicating about school with practice and role-modelling:
- Practise having conversations with your child every day and use consistent language to talk about school. For example, you might always start by asking ‘What was the best thing you did at school?’
- Model conversations about your day as a family. For example, chat together over dinner, and take it in turns to talk about your day or list 3 good things that happened.
Props can help you get the most out of conversations about school. For example, you could ask ‘Did you bring anything home today?’ If your child has brought home some artwork, you could ask, ‘Who did you sit next to in art?’ Or you could unpack your child’s lunch box together and ask, ‘Where did you have lunch today?’
Non-verbal strategies for communicating about school with autistic children and teenagers
Some autistic children and teenagers don’t have much or any language to communicate about their school experiences. You can still find out what’s going on for them at school by carefully watching their non-verbal signals. For example, if your child smiles and claps their hands when asked about a person or activity at school, it might tell you that your child had a good day.
You can find out more about your non-verbal child’s school experiences by:
- drawing or writing your questions about school
- getting your child to draw pictures about their day
- getting your child to tell you about their day using augmentative and alternative communication systems.
A structured visual approach can also be a helpful strategy for non-verbal children. These steps can get you started:
- Give your child symbols or pictures of happy, sad and angry faces (or other key emotions). You also need a list of school activities or a visual schedule showing the school day.
- Starting at the beginning of the day, say the name of an activity on the list or point to a picture on the visual schedule.
- Get your child to choose the face that shows how they were feeling at that time or during that activity.
Instead of faces, your child could do a thumbs up and thumbs down, or use a rating scale of 1-5 for ‘didn’t like’ to ‘really liked’.
When autistic children and teenagers tell you about problems at school
If your child lets you know that they had a problem at school or their behaviour suggests that they’re upset, you can use your child’s communication and behaviour to guide how you respond.
For example, if your child says they don’t want to talk or shakes their head, it might be best not to ask too many questions. Your child might just clam up.
But if you think your child might be open to communicating, you could try some of the non-verbal strategies above, including the structured visual approach. Or you could prompt your child with questions like:
- Was there a time today that you felt sad/worried/uncomfortable?
- What was the worst part of your day?
This might help you pinpoint when your child felt sad, worried, or uncomfortable during the day.
If you try these strategies and you can’t get your child to communicate, you might have to accept that your child doesn’t want to talk about it. A useful strategy in these situations is choosing a word to describe a difficult day that your child doesn’t want to talk about yet. For example, ‘I had a cloudy day’, or your child could show you a picture of a cloud.
Communication with schools
Good and regular communication with your child’s classroom teacher, aide or other specialists can help you get information about your child’s school experiences.
You can use this information to prompt communication with your child at home. And if your child tells you something good, bad or interesting about school, school staff will probably like to know about it.
A communication book or app or regular emails can be good ways to communicate regularly with school staff. Talk to your child’s teacher, aide or other specialist about what would work best for both of you.