When her son was diagnosed with Aspergers’ she took a year off from a very busy career in the corporate world to homeschool him, and to understand his educational needs. She took this very personal decision, and not only was she advocating for the education of her son, she understood, that thousands of parents are going through this every year, and in the great majority of the cases, are left very much alone in this.

Debra founded her company and private practice working on a variety of special education focused issues, from navigating and finding the most suited pre-school, accompanying them all through their education trajectory to transitioning to college. As she tells us, special education is a very complex and specialized arena, and what drives Debra, is helping parents have access to enough information to play a pivotal role in driving their child’s progress and in their education and success. This is about success in school – there is no time to waste, and it’s never too late.

Every child is different and every situation is different, yet early detection and early intervention is so important, as Debra tells parents all the time: you have to get it right as soon as you possibly can. Debra is very aware, that only few parents are possibly in the same situation as her, without the same flexibility and opportunity as her in taking such a decision.

A very important advice from Debra is also alerting parents to the fact, that the child’s needs will be changing all the time. What works when they are six, may not necessarily work when the child is 10, and the same is true for the family as a whole, what may work at first, due to changing circumstances may not work long-term. The education of the child, and the organization of life around it needs to be constantly re-evaluated. Parents have to ask themselves, whether they can continue working full time, and if they can, what kind of supports and services they need to make it happen.

It’s a life-long challenge, as parents well know. It doesn’t matter what the title on the job is, it can be CEO, but as soon as the child is diagnosed with ____ (fill in the blank), the challenges will be on going. As she talks about it often, it is almost like a seesaw between “chronic” and “crisis” issues. If you have an emergency situation at 2pm on a Wednesday, but a management meeting at 3pm – that’s a crisis. If it’s a chronic issue – it’s on going. And for many parents, it’s a combination of both, it’s chronic and crisis. Which puts a tremendous work-life strain on working parents.

There is an additional pressure on working parents, if in addition to children, or a child with special needs, they also need to take care of an ailing or ill parent. This is really tough, and the working professional, or parent, then at the same time becomes a case-manager for their child with special educational needs, and also a case-manager for their parent. These are “Herculean work-life challenges”!

We also touch upon the availability of services, and their costs, and what kind of financial burden they mean for families.

If we normalize the issues, then change can happen, just as it did with lactation/breastfeeding rooms in companies, allowing new mothers to pump or breastfeed during the working hours at the workplace. If special education needs could be discussed and talked about and normalized, change can happen there too. Another such issue, that is long overdue, is addressing working fathers at the workplace. A number of recent news items have highlighted CEOs, who stepped out when they became a father and chose to spend time with their child – and we need to look at these normal life-cycle events and accommodate them in the workplace. These cases can lead to the breaking down of stigma.

Everywhere in the world – US, Europe, Australia, the number of diagnosed children with autism spectrum is rising, yet there is a disconnect by governments and employers in supporting the parents, who are responsible in ensuring, that these children have the opportunity to learn and receive the special education that will allow them to grow into successful and productive adults.

Now what are some solutions, what can employers do? Quite a few solutions actually do not cost a lot of money. The statistic show, that between 8-14% of organizations have employees that need to deal with these issues. Many organizations are instituting flexible work options, and this is a wonderful help. Flex work and flex hours are critical. Vacation or time-banks or financial assistance can also help. A great advice is also for companies to turn an empty office into a save and private place allowing parents to make phone-calls related to their child without being afraid to be overheard by colleagues. And why not place some information and advice material there at the same time.

ducational advisors go to the workplace and schedule one-on-one consultations with employees, who can bring the educational material of their child there and ask all the questions they need answered.

We finish off with our trademark question, and Debra imparts important advice about the business case for supporting working parents with a child with special needs. Even if a CEO cannot see something – doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The bottom line of their organization depends on the health (physical and mental) of their employees.


Debra Schafer is CEO and Founder of Education Navigation, LLC, specialists in navigating special education, providing work/life services to companies and working parents who have children from preschool through college transition with autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, learning differences and mental health issues.
Debra also maintains a private consulting practice, which she has had for over 15 years, providing special education advisory services to CEOs, senior executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs.

Debra also has over 20 years of corporate and consulting experience in human resources, work/life, and communications. She is the 2012 recipient of the WorldatWork Alliance for Work/Life Progress “Rising Star” award and has also been recognised by autism and special education organisations. She is a speaker, writer, advocate, and most importantly, a parent whose young adult child experienced challenges in school.