Ten Things to Ask of Professionals Working with Your Special Needs Child

A Fresno, California mother made headlines when she sued her daughter’s teacher and school administrators. The mom had paid a surprise classroom visit and allegedly found her developmentally delayed seven-year-old locked in a makeshift cage and wearing a soiled diaper.

The principal of the school reportedly told police that the enclosure was a safety precaution that had been used for several years. The story went viral, probably because it seemed to confirm the worst fears harbored by many parents of children with special needs: that some people we trust to help our children may not be worthy of that trust.

To be sure, very few parents will encounter the situation based on the Fresno mother’s claims. I also do not doubt the teacher’s good intentions. Still, her experience is a reminder of how important it is to invest time and effort in building trusting and open relationships with every professional, caregiver, and educator who works with your child.

As a pediatric psychologist I know that families’ journeys can be fraught with unexpected challenges. Discovering that your child has differences can be daunting, but ensuring that your child’s needs are properly met by the outside world can be even more stressful.

The good news is that we know more than ever about why it’s essential to nurture strengths and relationships as the foundation to helping children with developmental challenges.  The bad news is that this new knowledge does not always translate into real- life treatment for your child.

As a parent, you can have significant impact on how teachers and others perceive your child, the unspoken messages these adults offer, and the emotional support they provide. These ten tips are a start. Of course, every child and family is different, and you should adapt the list to your particular parenting beliefs and your child’s unique profile.

As parents we respectfully request that members of our child’s support team follow these tenets:

1. Understand that developmental or neurological differences don’t define our child.  We do not want our child to experience unspoken messages that she is a diagnosis in need of fixing.

2. Presume competency in our child, and understand that it may take a while for him to show you all he knows.   Please have patience and assume that he understands everything you are saying.

3. Do not confuse our child’s inability to speak or use proper language as an inability to think.  Our child’s ability to communicate her inside thoughts is not always easy or possible, but she has thoughts, emotions and desires just as any other child does.

4. Prioritize our child’s feelings of safety in relationships as a necessary condition for learning.  It is more difficult for our child to feel safe because he can’t easily communicate his needs. Please help him feel secure, loved, and safe.

5. Understand the critical difference between intentional misbehavior and our child’s attempts to communicate distress. (They can look the same from the outside). Our child’s behaviors, which may look negative or attention-seeking are most likely stress responses,  “fight or flight” reactions, not aggressive acts.

6. Consider the mental-health implications of every behavior plan, strategy and intervention for our child.  Our child feels sadness, shame and embarrassment as any other child does.  Please be considerate of his emotions when creating educational and treatment plans.

7. Consult with us, her parents, before attempting to “normalize” behaviors.  Some of our child’s behaviors help her feel calmer.  If they are not disrupting others, please do not take behaviors away without first speaking with us.  This can have an impact on her developing self-confidence.

8. Work from our child’s strengths, natural interests and motivation. Our child, like all children, learns best when he is engaged and interested in the process. Please incorporate his natural interests in his education and therapy sessions.

9.  Certain sensory experiences may be difficult for our child. Get assistance from an expert on sensory-motor integration (typically an occupational therapist or physical therapist) to make sure therapy goals are tailored to our child’s sensory processing profile. When taken into consideration and accommodated, our child is more content and learns better.

10. Continue to raise the bar and expect as much from our child as you would from any other child. We have the same hope as all parents: that our child will be happy, secure and live to the highest potential. You are essential in making this happen.


Do you have any questions or comments? I invite you to write them below or visit my Facebook page where I post supportive resources for parents and professionals.





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Mona, this is beautiful, wise and so vital for parents and professionals to know… ~ Lisa D.

Thank you so much Lisa!

Dr. Mona, number four is so vital and is almost always overlooked. Thank you for creating such a useful list–we’ll be referring to it often!

I’m so glad, Joni, thank you!

So thoughtfully stated. Thank you so very much for sharing!

As a parent, great thoughts, my only concern is the title says questions but they are not questions.

Not really questions but considerations. It’s about parent empowerment and leadership. Thanks for reading!

I am a SPED Teacher and work with students with Multiple Disabilities, this includes Autism. I agree with all your statements. I have to often train fellow collogues and some parents to raise the standard for my students. As a teacher I want to tell you thank you for being a great advocate for your child and a great resource for parents going through similar situation.

Thank you so much Caitlin. Your families and students will certainly benefit from your care and attention. There is so much hope for every child!

As a parent, I agree with almost all of this list. Presuming competence is the big one for me, as so many people say they do… and then don’t.

However, I must take issue with the first point. My daughter is a lovely, warm, funny child and to us she is perfect, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we genuinely believed there was nothing ‘wrong’ with her. It’s not ok that she can’t walk, and it’s not ok that she can’t talk – for us or for her. Pretending that it is ok is, in my opinion, just as damaging as writing her off completely, as it’s equally not based in reality.

As a parent, I want my daughter to achieve her full potential and will continue to look for ways to do so. But fundraising for research into a cure is, and always will be (until we find it!), one of those ways.

Dear Donna,
Thank you so much for writing, and your point is an excellent one. I need to think about re-wording that first tip. The list was made in response to my ongoing frustration witnessing parents being told by school authorities what their child needed or was capable of, instead of asking or collaborating with parents. I believe that parents have a special intuition that must be valued. I also agree that we need to pour funding into research for cures, and that there is always hope for that. You say something very important here. By the way, my latest interest is in finding ways to help all children communicate. New technologies and Ipad applications look promising and I’m trying to find our more about those.

Dear Mona,

I completely understand where you’re coming from, and agree with you. My concern stems from my experience of parents within our syndrome’s community who reject attempts to find a cure. I think much of that stems from denial that their child is different or held back – everyone wants to think of their child as happy and fulfilled, after all.

I would suggest something along the lines of “understand that developmental or neurological difference don’t define our child. We do not want our child to experience unspoken messages that they are a diagnosis in need of fixing, not a person.”

Thank you, I think it’s better now. As always, I learn so much from the real experts: Parents!

In Number #5 when you say: “knowing the difference between intentional misbehavior and our child’s attempt to communicate”, schools struggle with behaviors such as hitting, kicking, screaming because they are a safety issue. Some students’ anxiety is so high they are unable to manage and staff does not know how to proceed. Do you have any suggestions to manage these types of behaviors for students on the spectrum?

Thanks for asking! Yes, schools do need to manage safety issues in regards to behaviors. Research is showing us that emotional vulnerability is likely a result of neurological differences in ASD. The key is to find the way to emotional (body and mind) regulation for each individual child. I feel that the DIR model gives an excellent roadmap for doing this and you can find out more at http://www.profectum.org.

This story takes me back to my childhood where the ideal proffessional advice was not available to my parents. I was about nine at the time and the best advice they were given, ‘whatever Laurence has got hopefully it will dissipate during his adolescent years’. Sadly I frown when I read stories about children being abused and I consider what this teacher did was a form of abuse. How would she like to be put into a makeshift cage, what do these ‘professionals’ think they are going to achieve, warm these children up as though one day to be displayed in a zoo?

However the list of advices is very apt and no doubt when used by any parent on professional is going to nurture any child in a more positive direction.