I was lucky enough to attend the 2 day Positive Partnerships parent workshop, held in Newcastle this week. The workshop is targeted to parents of school aged children on the autism spectrum, presented by staff from Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT).
The Positive Partnerships initiative is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education & Training, through the Helping Children with Autism package, and is being delivered nationally by ASPECT.
I had been enrolled in this workshop before, years ago now, but was not able to attend due to work commitments. So I was quite excited to finally go along and gain much needed help and guidance as a parent of two school aged children on the spectrum.
There were 55 participants in total, broken up into 8 tables, based on their children’s age, so common education features could be explored. I ended up at a table with other parents with kids already in high school, or soon to transition there, like me. It was so good to be surrounded by people who get what we go through every single day.
We should never underestimate the power of understanding in our day to day lives.
Session 1: Autism – Characteristics, impacts and strategies
Day 1 of the Positive Partnerships workshop began with an introduction and an icebreaker activity at our tables, before launching into a session on what autism is all about. I found this session surprisingly interesting as I thought I already had a good grasp on the new DSM V. However, one of the videos shown set out the different components in such an easy to understand way – it’s certainly helping me get my head around it as we start Matilda’s re-assessment process.
The beauty of this introductory session was the way it clearly demonstrated how autism directly impacts on our kids’ learning and how we can all use practical strategies, at home and at school, to improve their learning outcomes.
The first strategy presented was a visual representation the 6 main characteristics of autism. The idea was to map where your own child sits along the spectrum of each characteristic, in order to get a better picture of how autism affects them. The 6 main areas are:
- Communication (non-verbal through to verbal)
- Social interaction (aloof through to highly interested/unusual)
- Repetitive behaviours/restricted interests (mild through to marked)
- Sensory processing (under-sensitive to over-sensitive)
- Information processing/learning style (visual/detailed/hands on/rote memory/executive functioning)
- Intellectual ability/IQ (severe/moderate/mild/average/gifted)
Being able to visually map how autism impacts on our kids in this way can help identify the main areas of challenge, across all parts of daily life.
The second strategy presented in this session takes the first 5 of these elements and places them in a planning matrix. The idea of the matrix is to look at these elements and identify how they manifest in your child (characteristics), how these elements affect your child’s life (impacts) and how to minimise and address these impacts (strategies). The Positive Partnerships website has an online module to help you use the matrix – I highly recommend you give this a go.
Session 2: Understanding sensory processing
I had not made the connection that sensory processing is now a key part of the diagnostic process under DSM V (it’s one of the four pillars of the repetitive behaviours/restricted interests criteria). But then, I’m still getting my head around the new diagnostic criteria…
Anyone who has any contact with someone on the spectrum will understand the crucial role that sensory processing has in the diagnosis process and in their ability to go about daily life.
This session increased our understanding of the unique differences people with autism have with processing information from their senses and identified strategies (via the planning matrix) to help meet their increased sensory needs.
Session 3: Understanding behaviour
The big takeaway (and reminder) for me from this session was that EVERY BEHAVIOUR SERVES A PURPOSE.
I know this (I do!) but I hadn’t really been living it or using this knowledge to help my kids. I’ve been railing against my son’s swearing and ranting at home when I should have been looking more deeply into what happens before, during and after the behaviour is demonstrated. Because understanding our kids’ behaviour is the key to better supporting them.
I particularly appreciated the following reminders when it comes to behaviour and whether to try to stop it or not:
- is the individual physically hurting themselves or others?
- is the behaviour interfering with the individual’s own learning or the learning of others?
- is the behaviour limiting access to everyday experiences, settings and services?
It may be the case that it’s not necessary to change the behaviour at all – we may have to change our expectations instead.
In cases where it is necessary to change behaviour, the positive behaviour support template, provides a way to get down the bottom of the behaviour and start looking at it’s root cause. I was so impressed by this template that I’ve given a copy to my school – I think it could help all kids, not just those on the spectrum.
It’s also worth remembering that we should be spending 90% of our time planning and preparing for behaviours and only 10% of our time reacting to them, rather than 10% preparation and 90% reaction after the event.
It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
Session 4: Positive Partnerships website
We then went through the main parts of the Positive Partnerships website. There are videos, templates, tips and lots and lots of reading, available all day and every day for all parents of school aged children.
A lot of the information is available without registering as a user, however there is so much more you can unlock if you do register for the site.
For instance, each session in the 2 day face-to-face workshop can be accessed as an online learning tool when you register as a user on the site, as well as the comprehensive participant workbook.
This is quite a thick book…
I’m still having a good look around the site myself – there’s so much to take in and so many useful resources to explore. It’s well worth your time to access and to register as a user.
Session 5: Working together
For day 2, we started with a session on how we can best work with schools to further the interests of our kids. A team approach is best – we all know that. But it can be difficult to know just how to do it. A valuable exercise we did on the day was to look at what we, as parents, bring to a collaborative partnership with schools. We also examined our struggles and challenges. We then reversed this and looked at what schools bring to the partnership and examined the challenges they face as well.
It was a valuable exercise in better understanding the assets that both side bring to the partnership, as well as recognising the issues and challenges facing both parents and schools.
We were then introduced to a number of templates and planning sheets to help prepare for conversations and meetings as part of this partnership:
- Partnership Planning Template (what has worked for you, what has been challenging and what strategies could help)
- Conversation flowchart (a way to plan who to speak to, the topic to concentrate on and how to move forward if resolution is not achieved)
- Network circles template (4 circles, with the parent/carer in the middle, with close relationships, informal relationships and professional relationships in intersecting circles around the centre. This is to identify sources of support in our own networks)
A quick overview of disability discrimination law in Australia followed, with a look at the Disability Standards for Education (2005). This is really important information to access whenever there is a question over your child’s treatment at school – always consult the standards and don’t be afraid to hold your school to account of you feel there is a genuine issue if mistreatment or discrimination.
Session 6 & 7: Information topics
We then broke off into groups to attend 2 sessions of our choice on the following topics:
- Making friends
- Completing work
- Managing transitions
- Sexuality, personal health & hygiene
I attended sessions on managing transitions and completing work as these are areas of greatest concern for me with the imminent transition to high school for Gilbert. These were conducted in small discussion groups, where we heard the experiences of others and talked about ways we could address these issues, led by the group facilitator.
I got a lot out of the managing transitions group. We were shown examples of visual timetables and provided with examples of how transitions had been successfully managed for other students on the spectrum. Some strategies suggested include:
- lockers for bags & personal items
- orientation sessions
- access to a class diary or rule book prior to starting school to understand specific class/location expectations and rules
- social story
- mentors at school
- colour-coded visual timetables
- access to a sensory/calm room during the day
- pass outs to access this room during specific class times
- communication protocol with the school so you have early knowledge of teacher, class and classroom changes
- understanding of subject specific language and expectations
An example of a colour-coded visual timetable – created by ASPECT
The completing work group focused on how to improve executive functioning as this seemed to be our universal challenge in helping our kids complete their work. Essentially, we are their personal assistants and we may need to step up to help them deal with the challenges of high school. However there are strategies to help our kids help themselves too:
- scaffolding – breaking down assessments into smaller, more manageable tasks
- seeking multiple due dates for the separate components of an assessment task to help make it easier to complete on time
- using a google calendar to record due dates for homework, assessments and assignments and create reminders
- being clear on terminology used in class and for assessments/homework
- meeting with each teacher (where possible) to see if homework and communication can be sent directly to the parent as well as the student
- look at how special interests can be included in tasks
- see whether substitute tasks can be completed to demonstrate the learning outcome if the assigned task is a problem
- where homework is causing massive anxiety, seek a medical exemption from your GP or psych to opt out
These sessions were an eye opener for me as I really got to hear the real life stories of other parents dealing with the challenges of high school. I’m grateful to have a little more insight and to have many more great strategies to try, although I’m also feeling a little more daunted at the road ahead!
I found this Positive Partnership workshop to be valuable in so many ways, even though I consider myself fairly well-versed in autism and education.
I relished the chance to learn from experts – the ASPECT presenters were knowledgable and approachable.
I enjoyed speaking to other parents and hearing their stories – it always makes me feel better to know I’m not alone.
I loved the chance to network and discover local resources in our area (so I can better share them with you too!)
If you have the chance to attend one of these workshops in future, I would definitely go. They are free, they are valuable and they will teach you something, even if you’ve been on this ride for a long time now.
I know I came away more knowledgeable and more motivated to get the basics right so I can support my kids over the coming years.
Have you been to a Positive Partnerships workshop too? I’d love to hear your thoughts.