Just as parents of kids with autism and other special needs have gotten them used to being on a more relaxed summer schedule, it’s time to head back to school. That means more transitions: New supplies, new clothes, new teachers and sometimes a new school. Parents are also trying to ease their children into earlier bedtimes (and wake-up times) and slowly returning to the structure that the school year brings.
While that structure can be welcome for children with autism and other special needs, transitions are also tough. The anxiety of a new situation, whether it’s a school or just a classroom or teacher, can be overwhelming.
I recently spoke with Piper Phillips, the head of PHILLIPS Programs for Children and Families, a group that operates two public special-education day programs in the D.C. area. She shared ways parents can help children with special needs get ready to head back to school:
* Take baby steps. Instead of exposing your child to the change all at once, Phillips said, break it down into small pieces so she has more time to adjust. Slowly introduce your child to the new school, teacher or routine. Start by looking at a picture of the outside of the school, then try to find a map of the building online so you can talk about where the classroom is and where she will have lunch. Drive by the school to show her where she will be dropped off each day. Try to arrange a time to visit the school when it’s not crowded, to meet the teacher and possibly see the classroom. Follow successful outings with a treat, such as a trip for ice cream, so your child will associate the stress-inducing trip with a pleasant result, Phillips said. Try to be matter-of-fact about the whole process. If you make too much of a fuss about it, or talk about the change too much, Phillips said, it can increase the child’s anxiety.
Another option is to create a picture or social story for your child, using photos from the school, of what to expect, Phillips said. The Web site Child-Autism-Parent-Cafe.com offers instructions and free templates to help you build a story to fit your child.
* Involve the child in the planning. Children with autism and other disabilities often struggle with executive function skills, or the ability to focus, get organized and manage their time. There’s a lot of planning involved in school, from getting ready and out the door in the morning to getting the homework done in the evenings. There is no one size-fits-all routine or organization system, Phillips said. You have to figure out what works best for you and your child. Sit down with your child and ask what he needs to be successful, so he’s invested in the schedule and system. That will make him more likely to go along with the plan, Phillips said. Then set up a reward system so if your child gets ready and out of the house on time three or four out of the five days, he gets a treat. It’s also important to recognize that while certain tasks, whether it’s packing a backpack or turning in homework, come easily to some children, they are much more challenging for others. Take that into account when you are setting expectations and defining success in meeting them, Phillips said.
When it comes to homework, ask your child if he wants you to set a timer for breaks, or just give verbal warnings, Phillips said. Some kids respond well to timers and others find them very stressful.
* Take care of yourself, too. It’s easy to lose sight of yourself in the shuffle to get everyone else taken care of, but if you don’t do it, no one else will, Phillips said. So while you’re thinking about what your child needs to get ready for school, think about what you need, and treat yourself well.
“You’re going through this and you have the extra burden of working with a child who is not as flexible about schedule changes,” Phillips said. So it’s important to know your limitations and what triggers your frustration. When you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself, ask for help from your spouse, partner, family or friends, and take a break. Or seek help from a professional who can help you or your child better cope with the stress.
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