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Helping Your Aspergers Child Get Ready to Return to School

Hopefully summer has been a time for your family to "re-group" and enjoy a lifestyle that is more relaxed than the pace most of us experience during the school year. In the short time prior to the start of school, there are several things parents and school personnel can do to ease the transition into the school year. Like most useful strategies, these require time and effort. Setting the tone for the return to school can have tremendously beneficial results.

A significant number of students with Aspergers encounter substantial problems adjusting to the school environment. "Although some Aspergers students begin to struggle as early as preschool or kindergarten, almost all will have encountered some degree of difficulty by the upper elementary school grades" (Adreon & Stella, 2001, 268).

1. Address the Issue of School Clothes: If your school requires school uniforms, you may need to give your youngster time to get used to wearing the uniform. In some cases, it may be helpful to wash the uniform several times with fabric softener to lessen the "sensory" challenges. Plan to have your youngster wear his/her uniform for gradually longer periods of time, over the course of several days prior to the start of school. If your school doesn't have uniforms, it is still possible that "appropriate attire" for school may be different than what your youngster chooses to wear during the summer. Have your youngster practice wearing appropriate school attire before the first day of school. If your youngster will be attending a new school and you're not sure what students wear, it's a good idea to ask - so you can help your youngster learn to wear clothing that will be considered "ok" by peers.

2. Establish Homework Routines: Establish "homework" routines by helping your youngster get into the habit of doing quiet activities at a specific time and place every day. This could be time for reviewing previously mastered skills, doing silent reading, journal writing, crossword puzzles and similar activities before school begins. Do be careful that this is not a time to have your youngster engage in his/her most preferred activities, as it is designed to set the stage for homework during the school year.

3. Figure out How to Motivate Your Youngster: Plan on using external motivational systems in order to be able to implement these changes. Students with Aspergers rarely see "our agenda" as necessary or important. This can often involve the use of activities/items we often give away freely (Watching TV shows, playing a favorite game, errand to favorite store, points/tokens exchangeable for something your youngster wants). Remember, the key to motivation is that the reinforcer must be powerful and immediate!

4. Implement Student Orientation Activities: If your youngster will be attending a new school, see if it's is possible to visit the school several times over the summer. Perhaps your youngster can be provided with opportunities to become acquainted with some of the staff at school as well. The more familiar the Aspergers student is with all aspects of the environment, the more comfortable he/she will be. If your youngster will be returning to the same school, you may not need as extensive an orientation. However, it may still be beneficial to meet his/her new teacher and to see the classroom. One parent indicated that she purchases the school yearbook to acquaint her youngster with the building, pictures and names of key school personnel, as well as information regarding available extracurricular activities (Thanks to Marianne Bryant of Inverness, Florida for sharing this idea).

We often fail to recognize the importance of re-acquainting the youngster with Aspergers to familiar routines. Rebekah Heinriches shared an experience with her son, Sam. "Last year, a few days before school officially started, I dropped Sam off at school during the scheduled time so he could find out who was in his class and his teacher assignment for fifth grade. Before dropping him off, he told me he wasn't sure he remembered how to get home. He had walked the same two blocks back and forth to school the year before. I was shocked at his statement even though I was aware of his orientation difficulties. I reassured him of how to get home and told him he could wait for me if he wanted." (Myles & Adreon, 2001, 127).

5. Re-Establish "School-Year" Home Routines: Many students with Aspergers have difficulty adjusting to new routines. Therefore, in the weeks prior to the beginning of school it is helpful to gradually move into the schedule that is necessary during the school year. This might mean shifting bed time to the time your youngster will need to go to sleep during the school year. You may also focus on helping your youngster becomes accustomed to waking up earlier in the morning. For many kids, it is important that they also reestablish morning routines. This may reduce some of the "challenging mornings" many parents report in getting their youngster ready for school. For example, if John has been in the habit of eating breakfast in his pajamas and watching his favorite television show for an hour prior to getting dressed in summer, it would be advisable to modify his routine several weeks prior to the start of school.

6. Set the Stage for a Good Relationship: Make friendly overtures with school personnel to set the stage for a collaborative relationship. When you stop by the school during the summer, consider bringing cookies for all staff working in the front office. Bet yet, when your youngster accompanies you, let your youngster practice the social skill of offering items to others. Remember, in general, school personnel are overworked and under-appreciated!

From the very beginning, look for opportunities to show appreciation and support to all school personnel who go out of their way to help your youngster be successful. Some suggestions include occasional treats (homemade or bought), gift certificates to stores, donations of useful items for the classroom, paid attendance at conference, hosting teacher appreciation lunches or dinners, volunteering to help with various projects at school, and letters of support sent to their supervisor (Wagner, 202, 146).

Student Orientation—

o Meet all educators and relevant school personnel.
o Obtain information about school routines and rules (i.e., lunch, going to the bathroom, before/after school, transportation).
o Practice route(s) from various classes to the bathroom, counselor's office, home base, etc.
o Practice routines such as finding homeroom from the bus stop, opening locker, going through the cafeteria line, etc.
o Practice use of transition to home base through role-play.
o Provide a walk-through of the Aspergers student's daily schedule. In schools where the schedule changes from day to day, the Aspergers student should have the opportunity to practice all possible schedules. If applicable, student "buddies" should be available to walk through the schedule with the student with Aspergers.

The following are suggestions for the walk-through:

o Provide instruction on the procedure for seeking out the safe person and home base.
o Provide the Aspergers student the pictures and names of all additional personnel, such as cafeteria workers, school nurse, etc.
o Provide the Aspergers student with pictures and names of all educators in advance of orientation.
o Provide the Aspergers student with pictures and names of student "buddies."
o Provide visual/written class schedule(s) for the Aspergers student.
o Show the Aspergers student where his/her assigned seat in each classroom will be.
o Videotape a walk-through school schedule for the Aspergers student to review at home.

7. Plan a Relaxing Day Just for You: As your youngster's advocate you have a never-ending job! There is always so much to teach and so much to do. Usually, the school year is stressful- not only for the kids with Aspergers, but their parents as well. Remember, you have to make some effort to take care of your own needs, if you plan to have the time and energy to attend to the needs of others.

8. Orchestrate a Few Social Gatherings for Your Youngster: The development of all positive social relationships will be helpful for your youngster. Prior to the start of school, you will want to try and target one or two kids who will attend school with your youngster: Usually, successful social experiences are easiest to structure with one youngster at a time, rather than a group. Sometimes, parents experiences more success if they establish a relationship with the parent of a "tolerant" peer and enlist the support of the parent (and the student) in serving as a "peer buddy".

9. Leave Time In Your Fall Schedule for Phone Calls/Meetings: You will want to remain in close contact with school personnel to identify problems early on in the school year. In particular, you will want to monitor supports/problems in all unstructured situations, monitor your youngster's stress signals, monitor for teasing and bullying and communicate frequently about homework assignments.

10. Call Your School Contact Person & Review Plans for Staff Training: If this was not previously arranged, do recognize that the week prior to the start of school is an extremely busy time. You may be able to arrange for the team to meet for one hour and arrange for follow-up meetings at the beginning of the school year. The most helpful information will include simple suggestions to assist educators in reducing your youngster's anxiety. Educators do not need to become an "expert" on Aspergers before your youngster walks into their classroom. If a meeting is not going to be possible, prepare a one page synopsis about your youngster for the educator.

This may include:

(a) Challenges that may not be obvious,
(b) Stress Signs,
(c) Stress Triggers,
(d) Suggestions to reduce anxiety, and
(e) Strengths and interests - how the educator can use them to orchestrate successful experiences.

Ideally, adults throughout the school will know the youngster with Aspergers and engage in positive short dialogues to help him/her feel comfortable and supported. Even routine greetings such as "Hi Jerry" said with a smile can be a positive and helpful social exchange for the Aspergers student.



Resources:

• Adreon, D. & Stella, J. (2001). Transition to middle and high school: Increasing teh success of students with Asperger syndrome. Intevention in school and clinic, 36 (5), 266-271.
• Myles, B. M. (2002). Asperger syndrome and adolescence: Practical solutions for school success. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism/Asperger Publishing Company.
• Wagner, S. (2002). Inclusive programming for middle school students with Autism/Asperger's syndrome. Arlington: TX: Future Horizons

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

A very helpful article - wish I'd had this advice last year before my son started reception.

Anonymous said...

Megan Daoust Wow! Thanks for the reminder! School is certainly creeping up quickly. My child has some changes in the school system this year, it is a good idea for us to implement some of these strategies we laid to rest, and maybe try a few new ones, too :)
22 minutes ago · Like · 1 person
Charlotte Harrow Oldmeadow This is really helpful and sound advice - wish I'd had this advice last summer before my son started reception - got some good tips for transition in to the new year. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Wish I had had this list before now. We did the trial and error thing to figure out what worked. Now that my son is 15 and at the same school since 6th grade, the only thing he asks for are new clothes so he will fit in well and his schedule before the first day of school so he knows where to go and who he has for teachers. A recent milestone for him is the realization he is different than most other students and he is ok with that. He has gone as far to say that I'm different and if you don't like me the way I am than it's too bad for you. So proud of him!

Anonymous said...

Megan Daoust
FYI with school coming up--if your school/district has uniform or dress code rules, the best finds we have had are at Land's End. Of course, everyone has different needs, and different dress rules to abide by, but it may be helpful. My son can only comfortably wear slim pants, and their slim sizes are also long enough for his spaghetti legs. They have one pair of pants called "climbers" I think, they have an elastic waistband with an adjustable "belt" in the front. My son has been able to skip the belt requirement at school due to bathroom urgency and fine motor skills, and the waistband without button, snaps, or zippers helps further. These pants also have a double knee that really holds up (he'll bust through a knee on regular uniform pants in one wearing sometimes), but is not "hard/crunchy/rough/annoyi​ng" on the inside, as some other double or reinforced knee pants are. For his particular sensory needs, the fabric and seams of all their clothing so far have been very tolerable. Again, everyone is different, but if this is a struggle for you, it may be worth a try! Many Sears stores have products there, so you can try them on and see if your child can tolerate the fabric, etc. We special order our sizes, and if you order form instore, shipping is free to your home.

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