As kids are heading back to school with all sorts of new things to absorb, there will be a lot to learn. But one thing we may not consider among those new skills they’re gaining is learning how to interact with and possible help other students who learn differently.

With the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder continuing to grow, the odds are that your child will at some point share a classroom with a student who has autism if he or she hasn’t already. So how do you help your child interact with or understand this classmate?

Joanna Sandusky, principal at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Montgomery County School has five tips for how parents can talk to their children about how to understand their classmates, and why they should. She should know: Kennedy Krieger schools provide specialized educational services to students with autism.

  1. Explain that everyone learns in their own way – Like all individuals, every child with autism reacts to situations differently. Stress to your child that it’s okay that everyone is different and learns in his or her own way.
  1. Explain what to expect – Let your child know that behaviors such as lack of eye contact or repetitive actions are typical for a child with autism. Students with autism may also communicate differently. This does not mean they are not listening or paying attention.
  1. Follow the teacher’s lead – Teachers are trained to manage potentially difficult situations and behaviors in the classroom. They know to teach students how to best communicate and engage with classroom peers. Encourage your child to be patient and follow the teacher’s lead.
  1. Strike an interest in the student’s interests – Children with autism will often focus on one toy, activity, or topic. They may not seem interested in playing or making friends. In order to relate to the student with autism, encourage your child to engage with the student in that child’s preferred activity. It’s also helpful to be good listeners and try to engage the student in new activities and topics.
  1. Become a peer model – People with autism respond well to explicit models of appropriate or expected behavior and routines. Encourage your child to demonstrate good social skills, follow routines, and take initiative to have positive and concrete social interactions. This will allow students with autism to “follow the leader” and help them to develop a relationship with your student.

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