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25 Apr

A guide to communicating with families about autism

Early childhood educators play a key role in young children's development, learning and well-being, instilling skills and confidence that will serve them throughout their lives. With the right support from their educators, children of all abilities, including autistic children, can have a positive early learning experience.

When a young child is developing differently from their peers, it’s important that they receive the support they need as soon as possible. But, knowing how to raise this in a clear and sensitive manner with the child’s family or carers is often easier said than done. 

In this article, we’ll discuss what you should do as an early childhood educator if you suspect a child in your care is autistic. We’ll explain how to discuss your observations with your colleagues, communicate these respectfully to a child’s family and look after your well-being throughout this process.

  • Preparing to speak with a family
  • Talking with families
  • Creating communication plans
  • Looking after yourself

Preparing to speak with a family

It is essential to complete appropriate internal processes before discussing developmental concerns with a child's family. Many early learning centres have procedures around identifying and communicating observed developmental and behavioural differences to a family, and familiarising yourself with your centre’s policy is an important first step that will help inform your subsequent actions. 

Before approaching your colleagues or manager with your concerns, it’s vital to create your own record of observations about the child’s behaviour or learning progress. These observations should be taken at different times of the day over a considerable period of time. Asking other educators who interact with the child to validate your responses or share their perspectives can help to create a detailed picture of the child’s strengths and challenges.

Understanding the signs of autism in young children can help you make these observations quickly and confidently. ‘Navigating Autism: The Early Years provides free, relevant and evidence-based information about autism to early childhood educators - learn more here.

Once you have made enough of your own observations, it’s a good idea to approach your room leader or centre director. During this conversation, leading with the facts, not emotions, is vital. Your observations can often help you remain factual and objective, prioritising the well-being and dignity of the child and everyone involved in supporting them. 

Your room leader or centre director will often have questions about your observations, which is where having a detailed record is helpful. They may also ask other educators to share observations about a child’s behaviour. If your room leader or centre director believes there are enough observations to suggest a child requires support, they should then begin the process of organising a conversation with the child’s family.

Talking with families

Organising and facilitating a conversation with a family around their child’s development or behaviour requires empathy and sensitivity.

Firstly, it’s important that the discussion is organised at a time and place that suits the family. An in-person conversation might suit some families, while others might prefer to talk over the phone. Some families might like to bring a support person to assist with processing information and asking quesions; others may not. Accommodating the parent or carer’s preferences will help them to feel comfortable and ensure everyone has adequate time to express their views and ask questions. 

Ensuring that you and/or your manager are prepared for the conversation is also important. Any observations by yourself and other educators should be recorded clearly so you can refer to them where appropriate. It’s also worth reflecting on the family's needs, preferences, culture and values to remain respectful in your interactions.

When the time comes to have the conversation, taking a strength-based approach is essential. This involves focusing on what a child is doing well or enjoys while also mentioning concerns you may have, rather than dominating the conversation with what the child can’t do or struggles with. Making the child’s strengths the focus and emphasising that all parties share the same goal of supporting the child is vital for helping families feel comfortable and understood.

As the conversation progresses, ensure you communicate your observations factually, leaving personal opinions and emotions out of the discussion. It’s also important not to rush the conversation and allow the child’s family plenty of time and space to process what you are saying, ask questions and share their views. This will help the family feel respected and understood during this delicate conversation.

Regardless of the family’s background and how receptive they are to what you’re saying, educators should always offer guidance to families around accessing further support. This could be recommendations of websites and resources or contact details for a GP. Most importantly, educators should NEVER offer their opinion around whether a child should pursue an autism diagnosis or is autistic; these are judgements only a qualified clinician can make.

What if families are struggling?

Every family is different, and sometimes during these conversations, a child’s parents or carers might struggle to understand or accept your observations. This can manifest in a variety of ways, such as being dismissive or seeming angry or upset at what you’re saying. Sometimes, they might not be aware of what autism actually is. 

Moments where families are struggling can be uncomfortable and upsetting for everyone involved, but whatever their reaction, it’s crucial to meet families where they are. If they seem confused by the points you’ve raised, you can recommend one or two accessible and straightforward websites, such as our free digital toolkit ‘Autism: What Next?’ If they don’t wish to discuss things further or want to revisit the conversation at another time, respect their wishes and end the conversation there. 

As frustrating and upsetting as it is when families are not receptive to an educator’s concerns, try to avoid making any assumptions about their reaction; there may be factors or circumstances that you’re unaware of that are influencing their behaviour. For the family to change their perceptions, they mustn’t feel judged or unsupported by their child’s educators. Continue to follow the steps mentioned above, including leading with the facts, taking a strength-based approach and providing plenty of time for families to process and respond to information.

Although a family’s initial reaction to your concerns might not be as receptive as you’d hoped, that doesn’t mean you’ll never be on the same page. A family’s understanding and attitudes can change through respect, patience, education, and communication. By remaining objective and reinforcing the shared desire everyone has to support the child, families will feel heard, understood and supported as they process this information and decide what to do next.

Communication plans

A child with autism can’t be supported effectively after just one conversation between their family and their educators. Only through an effective partnership between all relevant parties involved with the child’s learning, development and behaviour can an autistic child reach their full potential. Communication plans are an essential first step in encouraging and maintaining productive collaboration.

A Communication and Inclusion Plan or Individual Support Plan (ISP) should be a comprehensive reflection of the child’s strengths, background and support needs. It should contain goals for their learning and development as well as guidance around program alterations and environment adjustments. This plan should also have a strength-based focus and contain positive guidance strategies that all educators involved with supporting the child can use.

In order to be successful, a Communication and Inclusion Plan or Individual Support Plan (ISP) must have input from a child’s family and educators, as well as any allied health professionals who are supporting the child (e.g., a speech pathologist or occupational therapist). By reflecting on the family's culture, values and goals for their child, the plan can reinforce a positive long-term relationship between educators and a child’s parents/carers. Regular and transparent communication in a format that suits the child’s family (e.g., weekly phone calls, in-person meetings) will instil confidence in all parties involved with supporting the child and ensure the plan remains effective.

These plans must be reviewed more formally every six months to ensure they continue to meet the child’s needs. This review should involve a meeting with the child’s family so any updates to the plan can be discussed and agreed upon. If there is a change to the child’s circumstances, support needs or learning and development goals, the plan should be reviewed and updated as soon as possible.

Looking after yourself

Early childhood educators have a rewarding yet demanding role that requires them to actively prioritise their health and well-being to provide the best support to children in their care. Without relevant and comprehensive self-care strategies and support options, educators run the risk of experiencing burnout, mental ill-health and even leaving the profession. 

Having strategies that can be implemented inside and outside of work helps us address all areas of our health. Eating well, staying hydrated, sleeping well and exercising regularly can support our overall health, while maintaining strong and positive relationships in and outside the workplace can foster good wellbeing. 

Developing procedures in your workplace to support staff well-being can help educators navigate the challenges that arise in their role. Swapping with other team members when a particular situation becomes too overwhelming or discussing ways the workload can be shared equitably can help educators look out for themselves and each other. Leaning on your team and remembering that you’re not alone can help you as an individual and the unity in your workplace.

As educators develop a comprehensive understanding of an autistic child and how best to support them, they’ll begin to feel more prepared and confident when working with them day-to-day. Knowing the child’s routine and preparing for the day’s activities and adjustments well in advance will reduce your anxiety and that of the child. 

There’s a lot to know about autism, and a lot to know about wellbeing, too. Participating in training and professional development opportunities will help you stay informed and develop both your confidence and resilience. 

Sometimes, a situation might become too overwhelming for us to handle. Self-regulation and taking a moment to yourself in these tricky times can help you relax, prevent escalating the situation and bounce back quickly. Allow yourself to take a step back when needed, and encourage your team to do the same. And if the strategies above aren’t helping improve your well-being, consider seeking professional support, particularly for your mental health

Your next steps

Communicating with families about autism can be complicated, and can cause early childhood educators a lot of stress without adequate guidance and preparation. Having the knowledge and confidence to navigate these conversations and the weeks and months after they occur is crucial for maintaining a positive relationship with a family and for early childhood educators to feel confident in their role. 

‘Navigating Autism: The Early Years’ provides free and evidence-based guidance to early childhood educators, empowering them to support autistic children and their families while prioritising their own health and wellbeing. A free online course made in collaboration with industry-leading educators and clinicians, this program is made by and for early educators at every age, stage and in every setting. It covers everything an educator wants and needs to know in short videos alongside downloadable resources you can display in your room or distribute in your centre. From autism-specific information to ways to prioritise your own well-being, this course contains a wealth of information accessible anytime, anywhere. Best of all, it’s designed for self-directed learning, so you can complete each module whenever and however you like! 

To learn more about the course and enrol for free, you can visit this link.

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