An Interview with Gavin Bollard
In 2006, Gavin Bollard’s eldest son was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. When Gavin began researching Asperger’s, he realized that much of what he read about it applied to himself. Subsequently, Gavin was also diagnosed with Asperger’s. (Gavin had worked with a speech therapist as a child, despite not being diagnosed until adulthood.) Later, Gavin’s younger son was also found to have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Gavin Bollard blogs about his family’s life with Asperger’s syndrome at Life with Asperger’s. In particular, Gavin emphasizes the importance of celebrating every child’s uniqueness, whether or not they are diagnosed with ASD. Read on to find Gavin’s tips for parents who are new to the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process and his advice on helping children with Asperger’s.
The nuances amongst disorders on the autism spectrum can be subtle. How do you explain your sons’ conditions to their teachers, other parents, etc.?
Our family believes that everyone on the spectrum (and off it) is unique and that while a label is helpful as a means of conveying a complex concept quickly, individuals should be understood as individuals. As such we provide our son’s teachers with a letter each year explaining their nuances, their likes and dislikes, their triggers – how to avoid them and how to calm our boys down in a meltdown situation. We make ourselves available for meetings but usually new teachers are short on time and as such, having a letter is an easier way to get the message across. They can read it in their own time – and over and over again. I know some people who laminate their letters so that the teachers can keep them on their desks for the whole year.
What has your experience with the IEP process been like? Are your sons’ schools generally receptive to their needs?
The early years of school are certainly the most difficult as the teachers are often at loggerheads with the parents. As parents, we want every intervention available for our kids, but the teachers know that their resources are limited and avoid committing to the details of the IEP. There were a lot of tears and arguments in those early meetings, but now we understand that they’ve got our son’s best interests at heart even if they don’t have the resources to do the jobs that need to be done.
We still find that teachers are focused too much on the academic side of things and don’t give any consideration to social aspects. Once the kids are out in the playground, they’re under “general supervision” but unfortunately, this supervision is limited and can’t do much about bullying or help our children when through their lack of understanding of social graces, they destroy their friendships.
What advice would you give to other parents who are just setting out to begin the special education process after a diagnosis?
Do not go to the IEP meeting alone. Take a supportive partner or friend. You will need a shoulder to cry on and some support. You’ll also need someone to remember the finer details of what was said when emotions take over. The IEP is a legal document – do not sign it until you are satisfied. If you feel that the meeting has been cut short without you achieving what you need, request to schedule another. At the same time, however, remember that resources are limited and that you won’t get everything you ask for. Make sure that you have top priorities and plan what you want to achieve before the meeting. When accommodations are given, make sure that you understand what they are. For example, if a teacher’s aide is allocated to the classroom, are they there for your child or for others?
Do your sons work with a private or school-based speech therapist? What types of speech therapy activities are helpful for them?
My sons work with a school-based speech therapist, however we started going to her long before they started at school. Many school-based speech therapists do other work on weekends; if you know what school your children will be going to, then it certainly helps to start with the same speech therapist when they are still toddlers. I think that the best activities they do are play-acting where they read a passage and then play-act or discuss the topic. This gives them confidence, acting skills, works on their tone and delivery, and also helps with their comprehension. Play-acting is an important skill which is even more critical for children with Asperger’s syndrome who need to play-act for most of their lives in social situations.
You’ve mentioned that as a child, you worked with a speech therapist and an occupational therapist before you even had a diagnosis of Asperger’s. Was speech therapy helpful for you and what types of activities did you do?
I can say without a doubt that if it weren’t for speech therapy, I probably wouldn’t be functioning in the world today. Speech therapy is arguably the foundation of all other therapies. It gives you the ability to interact and communicate with others. It provides the understanding required to process emotional content from others and it provides a means of interpreting the written and spoken word. It’s hard to remember specific activities, but I do remember that I learned the most by direct one-on-one conversation with my speech therapists. Those discussions were part speech therapy, part instruction, and part psychology/counseling. Apart from their normal duties, speech therapists act as social barometers for children, they can help children with Asperger’s syndrome to understand why their words cause alarm or distress in others and they can help them to react appropriately when inappropriate behavior is directed against them.
For example, I often did not realize when other children were being mean to me, but when relating stories to my therapist, I would be told that certain things were not nice to say. I had many of the mysteries of human social behavior explained in those sessions.
Thanks so much for sharing your family’s story, Gavin! Best of luck with your sons’ IEPs.