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How to Avoid "Back-to-School" Meltdowns and Tantrums

FYI to Parents: Getting ready for the new school year should start earlier when you have a youngster with Asperger’s (AS) or High Functioning Autism (HFA). There are so many things to plan ahead for, and people to coordinate with. You'll need to start preparing your youngster, too.

If you're like many moms and dads of kids on the autism spectrum, it's tempting to put off back-to-school preparations until the first day is just a week or so away. The resulting last-minute flurry of phone calls, errands, and meetings can be overwhelming. But this year, you can make the back-to-school process easier.

This post will focus on simple things you can do NOW to make this the best transition to the new school year ever:

1. First, brainstorm a list of everything that needs to happen with school between now and the first day of school. Get help from your spouse and/or a friend who has a youngster in the same classroom. Depending on your youngster's age and abilities, include him as much as possible in this brainstorming step. Also, highlight anything on your list involving a phone call, and start making those phone calls now. Top priority should be given to any call involving scheduling an appointment or a meeting. Calendars fill up quickly this time of year.

2. Bring your AS or HFA youngster to the school to meet people - anybody! Introduce her to anyone available (e.g., school nurse, administrators, office staff, custodians, etc.). If possible, make arrangements in advance for your youngster's teacher(s) to be there when you visit.

3. Depending on your youngster's age and abilities, allow her to practice self-advocacy skills. Encourage her to ask questions, tell educators and staff about her classroom needs, and discuss any issues that need to be taken care of before the first day of school (e.g., a stuck locker).

4. During the last month of summer vacation, pull out some study materials and help your child get back into “study mode” (e.g., with math, vocabulary, sentences). Start daily practice with the subjects and areas she likes for a few minutes a day, increasing up to longer times and throwing in the subjects that are more difficult.  Use play time, games, videos, and swimming as rewards.  Your youngster may grumble, but her teacher will thank you.

5. For most kids on the autism spectrum, transitions are the toughest challenge.  To make matters worse, some of these young people are undergoing a MAJOR transition this school year (e.g., from preschool to kindergarten, from short days to full days, from elementary to middle school, and so on). Thus, consider creating a few social stories about some of the transitions your child is likely to face in the new school year.

6. Get back on a school-year schedule gradually. Start moving up dinnertime, bedtime, and wake-up time, so the first day of school won't be such a jolt! Also, have your AS or HFA child help you make a morning checklist (use pictures) to help him remember everything he needs to do on a school morning after he wakes up. In addition, create a "Don't Forget" list and post it by the door with key items (e.g., backpack, books, lunch, etc.).

7. If you had your last IEP more than 3 months ago, or are planning to have it soon, now is the time to review all your old paperwork (e.g., IEPs, testing, evaluations, doctor’s visits, etc.), and see if your youngster has made any progress or regressions.  Have new concerns risen over the summer (e.g., meltdowns, aggression)? Does the plan still fit? Changes like these will affect the expectations of the fall semester school staff, and will likely necessitate calling an IEP meeting to re-review your youngster’s goals.

8. If your youngster has behavioral issues and has been home alone a lot over the summer, start setting up play dates and events to get him interacting with other kids again.  If your youngster has difficulty with social skills, getting him in a positive, safe play environment with other kids before the fall will take the edge off of his fears.

9. Schedule doctor visits for two to six weeks before school. Ensure that any medication is stable and that your youngster feels supported.

10. Stay upbeat about the approach of school and remind your youngster of the things that he liked about it.

11. The last month of summer vacation is a great time to work on a skill or two that your youngster is lacking (e.g., how to greet peers, how to dress herself, etc.).  If there is one small skill that you would like your youngster to be able to perform once school starts, create a plan for introducing that skill on a frequent basis (and remember to use a reward system that works best for your youngster along the way).

12. Review the layout of the school with your youngster. Do a tour of the building - even if he went to the same school last year. It helps get him into the school-year mindset, and also helps remind him where things are (e.g., entrances and exits, bathrooms, cafeteria, gym, nurse's office, new classroom(s), etc.). If your youngster is older, it's a good idea to get his locker number and let him practice opening the lock a few times.

A lot of children with AS and HFA have problems in executive thinking. Executive thought processing occurs in the frontal areas of the brain and is what allows us to interpret what is happening around us, and then decide what actions to take (or not to take) in response to what we perceive. In AS and HFA kids, these brain areas - and the processes they control - are not quite in check. As a result, they often have problems rapidly assessing and interpreting change. Therefore, they may become defensive and ready to “protect” themselves from any perceived threats to their normal routines, security levels, and self-esteem.

Kids on the autism spectrum may require as much as 4 weeks to get back in a comfortable routine once they have started school. This lag in adequate classroom learning and social skills learning often leaves these students struggling as they fall further and further behind their “typical” classmates, which creates frustration, feelings of inadequacy, and builds resistance to effective learning and building strong and lasting new relationships. Thus, wise parents would do well to facilitate a “back-to-school mind-set” in their special needs child well in advance of the first day of school, rather than waiting until the last minute.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said... I've started to change my mind set but slightly anxious every year.
•    Anonymous said... Thank you for this article, thought of school starting in 3 weeks has been making me sick to my stomach. Thanks for the help!
•    Anonymous said... We have more summer meltdowns than back to school ones. He is very happy to have an all day routine again, and so is Mom!
•    Anonymous said... We have only just started the school holidays - the supermarket setting up BACK TO SCHOOL shelves fill me (the parent) with dread... Let's enjoy the holidays!

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Surviving the Summer with Kids on the Autism Spectrum: Tips for Parents

Keeping kids busy - and out of trouble - during the summer is a challenging task for any parent. But doing the same with children on the autism spectrum is even more difficult.

Parents need to consider the unique needs, capabilities and interests of their children with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) – all the while keeping them busy and pushing them towards their behavioral and social goals.

Here are some ideas on how to achieve this balance:

1. An afternoon movie at a theater: AMC Entertainment offers special movie showings for families with AS and HFA kids.  The lights stay on, the volume is kid-friendly, and they can get up, move around, and talk without being shushed by irritated movie-goers.  It’s like home, only with a bigger screen.

2. Day camp: If you live in a larger metropolitan area, there may be day camps and other structured activities designed especially for kids with AS and HFA. These camps provide kids with some of the same routines they are used to in the classroom while allowing them to participate in activities lie camping, swimming, arts and crafts. Check with your youngster's teacher, case manager, or physician for recommendations. Look for a day camp staffed by counselors that have had extensive training with AS and HFA kids. A counselor who has not been trained to work with such kids may inadvertently trigger a meltdown, and not know how to handle one in progress.

3. Don't relinquish basic family rules and routines: It's tempting to let children stay up later in summer, and a bit of that is OK. But remember that even a little sleep deprivation can lead to irritability and meltdowns at any time of year. Maintain basic bedtime habits, and stick to scheduled chores, as well as other established behaviors. A whole day of playing video games should remain taboo even during summer vacation.

4. Firehouse fun: Call the local fire department and ask if you can stop by with your youngster for a quick visit to see the fire trucks and meet the firemen. This is a great way to learn about fire safety and introduce your youngster to rescue workers. Firemen are good with kids, and will spend time talking to your youngster about what to do in an emergency. Also, take pictures of your visit and turn it into a social story.

5. Fun with mud: With the warmer weather, feel free to enjoy some “messy” activities outside that will help your youngster to integrate her senses. Spray an outside table with shaving cream and let her smear it around. Fill a bin with rice and dig your fingers in. Create a mud pit to roll around in. All you need afterwards is a hose! This type of “sensory-play” has many benefits for kids on the spectrum.

6. Get back to nature: Take a trip to a sandy beach. Go on a nature walk. Have a picnic lunch in a shady grove.  Collect pinecones, acorns, branches, and other natural artifacts. When you get home, prepare a social story or a nature craft with your youngster.  Give her some glue, strong cardboard and glitter, and show her how to make a leafy collage of her park souvenirs.  Or, supply funny eyes and pipe cleaners, and see who can make the creepiest pinecone monster.  

7. Go to a science museum: Science and natural history museums offer many fun activities for AS and HFA kids. Yearly memberships are often inexpensive, and allow you the freedom to visit whenever you like.  Also, you’ll receive notification of special events.  Ask your curator what the quietest hours are for the museum, and plan your visit accordingly.

8. Go to the library: Reading to your youngster is an essential tool for broadening his vocabulary.  Young people on the autism spectrum benefit greatly from story time, as it teaches them the words they need in order to better communicate.  Have an early dinner, and visit your library during the quiet evening hours.

9. Help your AS or HFA teenager find a job: A part-time job is a rewarding way for a teen to spend some of the summer. Few things work better in building a sense of maturity, independence, and personal competence. The structure a job affords is a plus for teens on the autism spectrum, and the extra spending money is an added bonus. While some AS and HFA teens are capable of finding a job for themselves, most need guidance and encouragement.  Start by defining work goals (e.g., earning money, learning a new skill). Discuss the right types of jobs based on your child’s skills, organizational ability, and attention capability. Then help him choose where to apply. It helps to work on interview skills, so role-play business owners and managers. Your encouragement and support may be just what your youngster needs to follow through on a job search.

10. Keep a calendar of events: Even during the relaxed summer months, AS and HFA kids need structure to feel secure and have a sense of what to expect. A simple calendar of events lets your youngster see what's coming. Fill in ahead of time a mix of major summer activities (e.g., a family vacation, trips to visit relatives) and casual recreational activities (e.g., weekend trip to the zoo). For younger boys and girls, you may want to prearrange and mark down playdates.

11. Keep the education process going: Education doesn’t have to stop just because school is out for the summer. Build time into your youngster's daily schedule to research, experiment, and investigate a topic that interests him. If he loves video games, challenge him to design one of his own. If he is fascinated by butterflies, summer is a great time to start an insect collection.

12. Make a tent: Pull out all your blankets and chairs and have the tent overtake your living room or backyard. Tent play can occupy your youngster for hours. It’s also be a great resource to soothe an autistic youngster, providing a hide-out or quiet place. Place a bean bag inside along with books and a flashlight.

13. Movie night at home: A home cinema experience is a great way to get your AS and HFA kids out of the sun for a couple of hours and allow some down time. Instead of just plopping down in front of the TV, make it a real production with homemade movie tickets, a big bucket of popcorn, and pillows and blankets in front of the flat screen. It will seem like a special event in your youngster’s day with these little extras.

14. Music: Music therapy is an essential part of special education classrooms.  All kids enjoy moving to background music.  Encourage your AS or HFA youngster to express himself through dance by leading him in musical games (e.g., Freeze Dance, Musical Chairs).

15. Record the summer’s events: Bring a camera on all your summer ventures, and end each week by assembling photo album pages to go into your “summer memory book.”  AS and HFA kids in particular will benefit from the visual reminder of all the fun things they did while on vacation.

16. Social-skills groups: As the pressures of the school year ease up during the summer, this can be a great time to get involved with other families of AS and HFA kids in your location. Join - or form - a social-skills group, which helps “special needs” kids practice specific social skills within the context of a play group, field trip, or activity. Many AS and HFA kids desperately want to have friends and participate in social activities, but lack the direct understanding of how to do so. A social-skills group, made up of other kids on the spectrum, is a safe place to learn and practice social skills without fear of rejection or ridicule.

17. Swim: All young people love the pool, and AS and HFA youngsters are no exception.  Visit your local city council for a list of recreational pools in your area, including swim lessons.  Take advantage of pool time to practice some aquatic therapies, which are great for kids on the spectrum.

18. Swinging: Swings are beneficial for physical, social and cognitive development – and they offer certain therapeutic benefits (e.g., promote movement and perceptual skills, spatial awareness, general fitness, social interaction, mental representation, sensory integration, vestibular development, and so on.). If your youngster has trouble with crowds, visit the park in the morning.

19. Take a train ride: Most kids love trains. Make a day of it and ride the train with your AS or HFA youngster. Choose departure times during non-commuting hours so you can get a seat next to a window and deal with fewer crowds. Bring along treats to keep your youngster engaged. If you don’t have commuter trains in your city, check out other public transportation options.

20. Use your local resources: Take advantage of the summer recreational and educational opportunities that most cities offer. Find a youth sports league, or sign up for day camp. Many local rec centers offer swimming, gymnastics, even computer classes. Encourage your artistic youngster to join a kid's theater group or sign up for community art or basket-making courses. Find out where and when summer festivals are scheduled.

21. Wash the car: Sometimes, what grown-ups consider as chores can be fun activities for AS and HFA children. Running a “car wash” may be at the top of the list.  You supply the buckets, suds, and cloths, and your son or daughter can get busy while you supervise in the shade.  Tell the neighbors, and invite them to participate.

22. Water fun: You can quickly create your own water park in the backyard for an afternoon of thrills. For a younger child whose tolerance is low for water play, consider sitting him on the lawn and using your finger and a hose to create a variety of sprays for him to experience. For more active kids, you can use a variety of “water rides” (e.g., small splash pool, garden sprinkler to run through, water table, beach ball sprinkler, etc.). If you water your lawn in the early morning or evening hours, send your children outside to play tag under the watery sprays.  If you’re feeling adventurous, fill up a few water balloons and show them how to play Hot Potato.

23. Lastly, take care of yourself:  Moms and dads needn't be constant entertainment directors in the summer. It may be more helpful to express confidence in your youngster's ability to be creative and inventive — and then let him. So go ahead and schedule some activities, then get out of the way and let your youngster do what comes naturally.

When a youngster is on the spectrum, you can make two safe predictions about summertime: He’s likely to get bored easily and often, and he's almost as likely to become demanding of your time, attention and patience. The way to manage summer's lack of structure is to strike the right balance between free time and planned time. Use the guidelines above to light your way.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

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Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

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Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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