Oh the wonders of a new school year. Back-to-school shopping, meeting a new teacher, a new colorful classroom welcoming students, new faces, sounds of hundreds of children returning to school, the sights, the sounds, the new routine — all things most neuro-typical children handle with stride but often overwhelm our spectrum children. Most parents of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) children usually have their IEP or 504 in place for the coming school year, but there are many nuances to school that an IEP or 504 simply cannot cover to prepare an ASD student for all the potential challenges of a new school year.
With almost 12 years of “new school year” experiences with my own ASD student, I have learned to live by a famous Zig Ziglar quote, “Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.” The key word is prepare. There are many unknowns and uncertainties as you and your ASD student approach the school year. It is hopeful, but not guaranteed, that during the IEP/504 process there was good dialogue with the team and a good match was made between teacher and student. I have found teachers that are very firm, but fair and compassionate, are often the perfect choice for my student. It is important for the ASD child to trust the teacher and feel liked or respected by the teacher. Not all teachers are open to this, but when the school would contact me about my child’s teacher, we would try to set up a time to meet the teacher one-on-one without the entire class present. I would bring my daughter’s favorite book or treat to share with the teacher and try to build a positive experience before the start of the school year. I wanted the teacher to see the side of my child I often see when not encumbered by the stressors of the classroom.
Two other huge aspects of being prepared, include the playground and the classroom setting itself. While meeting the teacher, I would survey where the teacher was thinking of seating my student and help troubleshoot or brainstorm if this was indeed the seat that should be chosen for preferential seating. Often times educators assume the preferential seat should be by the teacher desk or the front row, but this may differ from child to child based on their sensory issues or if the child was like mine and prone to dart from the classroom. After a seat was chosen, I would request my child’s seat stay the same throughout the year. Moving to a new desk and a changing classroom is not necessarily fun for the ASD student.
Having issues with gross motor skills, I would usually bring my child to the school a few weeks early if we were allowed to play on the playground equipment. This would help her with familiarity and rebuild her skills so that if she made it past the social barriers of playground play, she would be able to feel confident and safe on the equipment on itself.
I also learned that not every school will provide the teacher with the IEP/504 right away at the beginning of the school year, and this is not fault of the teacher. The next step was to provide a short email to the teacher the first day of school reminding her of my child’s needs with bullet points as key points in the IEP. Most teachers find this helpful if short and sweet if prepared without demanding or condescending language. I want to provide a foundation of teamwork based on mutual goals of my child’s success in her classroom.
Prevention is also a key ingredient to academic success. In knowing your child and what situations or objects or settings tend to set the child off into melt-down mode can important. Prevention can start with back-to-school shopping. If the child has sensory issues, making sure every item of clothing from under garments to socks and shoes and outwear are something the child will be comfortable in at school. I had to give up the idea of cute and accessorized back-to-school outfits. Within the guidelines of the dress code for each school, it is far more important for the clothes not to be an issue. Back-to-school supplies are also crucial. If the school has rules about every student having the exact school supplies, work with the teacher to see if some accommodations can be made so that the child’s sensory issues are addressed with the tools he or she will be using every day. If the child hates cutting assignments, maybe it is the metal scissors that are problematic and finding some soft rubberized handles is the perfect solution. Another part of prevention is strategizing the back-up plan for non-routine days. Assembly days, picture days, field trips, field days, special speakers, or substitute teachers can all throw a monkey wrench into the perfect plan. These days take special preparation to plan for possible melt-down scenarios.
You have probably heard the saying, “If you have met one child with ASD, you have simply met one child with ASD.” ASD is a broad spectrum wherein no two children are the same. Each symptom of ASD is a spectrum and each ASD is unique in how they fall on various aspects of the spectrum. It is impossible to be prepared for each possible potential challenge of a new school, but with some preparation, prevention, and provisions you can enter the school year perhaps a little better and stronger each year. As my ASD student is approaching her senior year in high school, we have learned to be flexible and take each new year as a new challenge with the ultimate goal being to optimize success however we can. These ideas are aimed at elementary school years. With each transition to middle school, high school, college, there are far more adaptations to be made. Reach out to your state’s autism society and seek out additional helps or resources they may have on their website for ideas about back-to-school readiness for your state.
Stephanie C. Holmes, MA, CAS is a board certified Christian Counselor who practices in Atlanta, GA. Her book, Confessions of a Christian Counselor: How Autism Grew my Faith, outlines her personal journey as a mother of a spectrum child, will be published fall of 2015. You can look up other articles and blogs about ASD and marriage and family issues at www.counselorstephanieholmes.com.
This article was featured in Issue 36 – Managing School Stressors