Starting School - Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder - 5 Tips for Reducing Stress
Justine Watson has dedicated her career to helping families deal with the particular challenges faced by kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). She knows that the change of routine that comes with each new school year can be enormously stressful for the kids, and their parents. She also knows that parents can do something to make the experience less traumatic for the whole family.
Justine's advice is for parents to find out as much as they can about the new classroom, and then to slowly familiarise their child with that environment over the holidays. The key is to emphasis the elements that are likely to stay the same while gently introducing the idea of new faces, new schedules and new tasks.
“At the end of the day, these kids are going to be anxious no matter what,” she says. “But if you can [point out to] them a few things that look similar, they will do better. If their world is predictable, they will achieve better.”
1. Find Out What Will be Different and What Will Stay the Same
At the end of every school year, ASD kids and their parents should ask the school who their teacher is going to be in the coming year, according to Justine.
“They need to meet the new teacher and ideally spend some time with the new teacher,” she says. “And the same goes for the classroom.”
In particular, Justine suggests visiting the new classroom several times before the new year begins. All the better, she says, if you can get detailed information from the school about what’s likely to be happening inside the classroom. Find out, for example, where the child will be sitting. Ask which of the kids the child already knows will also be in the class. And get the lowdown on which sorts of lessons and routines from the past year are likely to be repeated in the new classroom.
“Basically highlight all the things that are going to remain the same, but also make your child aware of what’s going to be different.”
2. Make Use of Visual Cues
Take photos of your child’s new teacher and the new classroom, says Justine, and refer to them often throughout the holidays, increasing the frequency of those reminders as the first day of school approaches. If you have a video camera at home, ask the school permission to take some footage of the school grounds including the area where your child is likely to have lunch, where they’ll be playing and where they’ll be meeting for school events like assemblies.
3. Be Consistent with Supporting Strategies
School-age kids with ASD usually rely on a few smart, simple strategies to help them deal with the challenges of the classroom. It’s typical, for example, for an child with Autism Spectrum Disorder to be given a cue card they can raise to indicate to the teacher that they need a break from the class activity. Or they might have special permission to use a fidget toy in class. It’s essential that families and schools agree to be consistent with those strategies even when the child moves on to a new teacher or a new classroom.
“All the strategies that the child was using the year before absolutely must remain the same at the beginning of the new year,” Justine insists. “Change them in Term 2 if you don’t think the child needs them anymore, but for that changeover from one year to the next, they have to remain the same.”
4. Take Half Days
Justine is a little cautious when delivering this piece of advice because she understands that the strategy is advocating is a luxury not every family can accommodate. Nonetheless, she suggests that ASD kids should start the new year with half-days rather than trying to battle through a full school day.
“Some parents don’t have the capacity for that,” she says, “but a child with excruciating anxiety really needs at least the first week at only half-days.”
5. Know Your Rights
Though some schools and some individual teachers can be outstandingly supportive of kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families, others are not. It’s as simple as that.
“Historically school has been a place where you hand over your children,” Justine points out. “They take your children and they discipline them and they socialise them. Even if you’ve got the best school in the world with the best educators, they still might not like seeing parents take on more responsibility.”
As the mother of a child with ASD, Justine has both personal and professional experience of a school system that is sometimes reluctant to be flexible and unwilling to listen to the needs of individual families.
“Half of my job is teaching parents to be good advocates and teaching them what their rights are,” she says. “Through my own struggles I’ve had to learn to be an advocate for my child. My motto is: I know best. And that can rub people up the wrong way.”
Specifically she wants parents to insist that the teacher and teacher’s aid caring for their child have formal training in Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“They must have formal training in ASD if there’s an ASD kid in their class,” she says.