September is here again which for some countries including the UK, marks the start of the new school year and the end of the summer holidays. For students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), changes are particularly challenging to deal with and a new school year brings about a number of changes which could potentially be stressful. Students could have new teachers, classrooms, classmates and subjects which could take time getting used to. They too have underwent physical and emotional maturity over the summer which could impact on how they settle-in this school year. Here are some of my advice to parents and/ or caregivers of students with ASD who are about to come back to school:
- Remember that the students have an active role in their education. I have read many articles that give extremely good advice but forget to mention that students should be a part of planning and implementation of strategies- after all, it is their educational well-being that we are concerned about. It is important for parents to ask for the opinions of the students on everything before setting any targets and/ or routines. Students have their own opinions and not considering them may lead to frustration on all parties involved. They also have their own strengths and weaknesses which should also be accounted for.
- Develop a routine for everything and remember to keep these routines as consistent as possible throughout the year. It is well known that individuals with ASD prefer consistency. Having a routine for almost everything enables them to predict what would happen next, which allows them to prepare themselves for it. Routines could be made for getting up in the morning, the commute to and from school, break and lunch times, homeworks, and even bedtime. These can planned with the help of the school. It is also important to note that plenty of time should be given if any changes are to be made during the year.
- Organize a day to introduce your child to the new members of staff and/ or classmates that he/ she will have this school year. If at all possible, do this during the first day back to school. Some schools may send information about the children’s new class teacher(s) during the summer, which allows parents and caregivers to inform their children of any staff changes. As with the point above, this helps children prepare themselves and reduce any potential anxiety when they return to school. Some students may benefit from having a photo album of the new teaching staff and/ or students that they may encounter and with the help of the school, this should be made available to the students.
- Develop and maintain a positive relationship with the school. From experience, I know that this is easier said than done. There are times when parents and teachers disagree on things like punishment, rewards, targets and the allocation of resources, which potentially damages the relationship between them. However, it is important to keep in mind that both parties have the well-being of the students in their minds and that working with each other can help bring out the best possible outcome. Schools and parents should agree on the best way(s) to communicate, and also the acceptable frequency of doing so. Most schools operate an ‘open-door policy’ which means that parents can ring or send emails at any time they want. It is important to note however, that parents should not abuse this and take into consideration that schools have other children on their Special Needs Register as well.
- Develop a reward system. Everyone loves getting rewards. We all know that it is one of the most important sources of motivation and resilience. Having agreed on this year’s targets, students and their parents/ caregivers should have a reward system in place. Again, parents/ caregivers could copy what the school is doing in order to have some consistency. For instance, star charts and stickers could be used at home just like in the classroom. What should be important is that stickers and rewards should not be given too easily or too difficult otherwise, they may lose their value or student may lose their motivation.
- Allow your children to relax. They are under enormous amounts of pressure during these times and forcing them to work at extended amounts of time may be detrimental for their well-being. Some students may struggle to adjust during the beginning of the year which may lead to the temptation of making them do a bit more work at home. Give them time to go outside, play or do whatever they want (within reason, of course), especially if they are having a difficult day/week.
- Reward yourself. Parents and caregivers like yourselves, who devote countless amounts of time in looking after children with any Special Needs are alsoo under a great deal of stress and in my opinion, you are not given enough credit. Just like your children, it is important for you to take a break and relax. Arrange for a sitter to look after your children and have a night off. You should not feel guilty for doing so because you need, and quite frankly, deserve a bit of a break.
- Ask for help. Not every parent/ caregiver is well-equipped with the background knowledge and intervention ideas when it comes to looking after children with ASD particularly in matters concerning their education. Asking for help shows that you are willing to learn more.
I know that most of what I said may not apply to every single student with ASD. I should emphasise that every child is different and as a consequence, interventions should be tailored to the individual child. Nevertheless, I will point out that preparation, working together and considering the children’s opinions, strengths and weaknesses, are the most important factors in producing the best possible educational outcomes for them.
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