Helping Aspergers Children Adjust to the School Environment

Many – if not most – Aspergers (high functioning autistic) kids have significant problems adjusting to the school environment. Although some begin to struggle as early as preschool, almost all will encounter some degree of difficulty by the upper elementary school grades. Here is how moms and dads can help:

1. 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 moms and dads 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.

2. 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 most preferred activities, as it is designed to set the stage for homework during the school year.

3. 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 teacher. This may include:
  • Suggestions to reduce anxiety
  • Stress Triggers
  • Stress Signs
  • Strengths and interests and how the teacher can use them to orchestrate successful experiences
  • Challenges that may not be obvious

4. 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 child is with all aspects of the environment, the more comfortable 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 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.

5. 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 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 children 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.

6. 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:
  • donations of useful items for the classroom
  • gift certificates to stores
  • hosting teacher appreciation lunches or dinners
  • letters of support sent to their supervisor
  • occasional treats (homemade or bought)
  • paid attendance at conference
  • volunteering to help with various projects at school

7. Many children 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 moms and dads report in getting their youngster ready for school.

8. Plan on using external motivational systems in order to be able to implement these changes. Children with Aspergers rarely see "our agenda" as necessary or important. This can often involve the use of activities/items we often give away freely (e.g., watching TV shows, playing favorite games, 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!

9. 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, moms and dads experience 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".

10. 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.

Student Orientation—

Provide a walk-through of the Aspergers child's daily schedule. In schools where the schedule changes from day to day, the child should have the opportunity to practice all possible schedules. If applicable, student "buddies" should be available to walk through the schedule with the Aspergers child. The following are suggestions for the walk-through:
  1. Meet all educators and relevant school personnel.
  2. Obtain information about school routines and rules (e.g., lunch, going to the bathroom, before/after school, transportation).
  3. Practice route(s) from various classes to the bathroom, counselor's office, home base, etc.
  4. Practice routines such as finding homeroom from the bus stop, opening locker, going through the cafeteria line, etc.
  5. Practice use of transition to home base through role-play.
  6. Provide instruction on the procedure for seeking out the safe person and home base.
  7. Provide the child the pictures and names of all additional personnel, such as cafeteria workers, school nurse, etc.
  8. Provide the child with pictures and names of all educators in advance of orientation.
  9. Provide the child with pictures and names of student "buddies."
  10. Provide visual/written class schedule(s) for the child.
  11. Show the child where her assigned seat in each classroom will be.
  12. Videotape a walk-through school schedule for the child to review at home.   
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