BY Kristina Tober, AUGUST 2018
Back to school brings its fair share of stress and concerns, particularly if you have a child on the autism spectrum. According to the Institute of Educational Sciences, more than 90 percent of 6- to 21-year-olds with disabilities are served in mainstream schools. Some have significant needs, and others, more often than not, fit well enough into a school’s academic programming but are challenged socially or developmentally.
As parents of children on the spectrum, we understand intimately that each child has specific strengths and deficits. We know it’s critical to plan ahead, anticipate landmines and set up our children for success in the new school year as best we can.
Communication is Key
Chances are, you wouldn’t install a faucet without reading the directions first. Same goes for our kids. Why would you send your child into any situation without first giving the individuals who will work with her all the tools for success? Take time to meet with your new school team. Be honest about your child’s needs, celebrate his or her strengths and be open to any and all questions. Communicate with them about any challenges you are having at home with homework, morning and evening routines, and behaviors.
Try to build a healthy rapport with your child’s school team and remember that they are there to support your child and to ensure his safety and success. Be their partners and make sure they know you appreciate their help. Gratitude is fundamental to satisfaction with any job, particularly when it’s challenging and underpaid.
If your child is part of a mainstream classroom or school, don’t be afraid to ask how openly students talk about differences and whether there’s been a concerted effort on the part of administrators and teachers to talk about disabilities. Some parents have taken it upon themselves to partner with their child’s teacher to introduce fellow students to differences and acceptance (for example, My Friend Isabelle by Eliza Woloson). Studies on inclusion show that children from integrated classrooms are more comfortable and aware of human differences, and they are more likely to have greater social empathy.
Keep Your Child Involved and Active
Kids make friends through sports and activities. Depending on your child’s abilities, you might look for an art or music therapy program, or programs geared to more mainstream students. Many communities offer after-school programs focusing on special interests like science, Legos, computers, dance, cooking and more. Even if your child hasn’t developed any specific interests, there’s tremendous value in exposing them to new things.
For kids on the autism spectrum, exercise and sports also provide a wealth of benefits, including rich opportunities to build social, emotional and motor skills. Find opportunities throughout the school year to build on what your child gained at Ascendigo:
- Most school districts and communities now offer inclusion or special recreation programs that offer support to individuals with special needs (https://www.autismspeaks.org/services/recreation-and-community-activities).
- Look into the Special Olympics branch near you to see if they have programs or camps https://www.specialolympics.org/programs.
- Join your local YMCA or health club. Many offer swimming lessons for individuals with disabilities. Others have open gym times when your child can run around with peers informally, play basketball, walk around an indoor track.
- Get inspired by the athletic successes of other kids with autism https://www.si.com/sports-illustrated/2016/11/01/people-with-autism-spectrum-disorder-embrace-sports-athletics .
If organized recreation or sports programs seem too daunting for you and your child, remember the Great Outdoors. Connecting with nature can improve mental focus and foster a healthier, happier child. Find a nearby nature preserve and take a hike with your child.
If your child resists, try employing some affinities-based learning strategies used by Ascendigo. According to Conlan McGough, Adventures Program Manager, the trick is to use an individual’s interests to teach new skills. Have any new instructors or coach build rapport with your child. Instead of first asking your child to do a non-preferred task, the coach can build trust by asking them about something he likes and “bank” points. Once there’s a level of trust and respect, your coach can start asking your child to try something new. Incremental steps also work well.
At Ascendigo summer camp, for example, rather than forcing a participant to sit in the boat on Day 1, coaches might have him sit in the raft on dry land for 5 minutes. Day 2 they might ask the camper to sit in the raft on the water for 5 minutes. Day 3 he might sit in the boat on moving water, and by Day 4 he’s hopefully paddling the raft.
Don’t forget Ascendigo’s fall and winter programming. If you are lucky enough to live around Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, you can enjoy Adventures Club. Or book a family trip to Aspen Snowmass and join Ascendigo’s Winter Adventures Program. If Colorado is too far or expensive for you this winter, look for similar programs at your closest winter resort. Even resorts in Europe offer programs that support athletes with autism http://ski2freedom.com/en/skiing-with-disabilities/autism.
Every kid starts the school year with some anticipation and dread. The same applies to your child with autism. It often takes a good month for everyone in the family to adjust to a more structured, hectic schedule. Jessica McAllister and Chris Margaritis of Ascendigo’s Outreach department offered a few suggestions to help the transition:
- Establish before- and after-school routines and create either written or visual schedules. Try practicing the routines even before school starts so everyone is on the same page.
- Give your child daily opportunities to do what he/she wants, outside of school but still within their daily routines. Be understanding of difficulties and notice when and with what your child needs support.
- Employ behavioral strategies like First/Then, reinforcement, and setting clear expectations. Make sure to reinforce when an exact expectation is met, and avoid adding in more.
Finally, remember that it has taken you years to understand and manage your child’s disability, so give newcomers a break.