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Easing Kids with Autism into the New School Year

Advance planning means smoother transitions

August 2013

New teachers + new students + new schedules = renewed anxiety for kids with autism. It's a tough equation for these kids to master. There are, however, ways parents can help ease the transition from summer to new school year. Read on.

Partner with the school. Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, recommends parents talk with the school to see how they can support one another to help make the school year a success for the child. Find out how the student body and staff have been educated about autism and help prepare informational materials if a need exists.

Write a letter to teachers. Autism presents differently in each child, which makes it hard for teachers to know how children with the disorder are going to react or behave. "It's trial and error," says Claire Ball, an ally with the Autism Society of Indiana and mom to a son with autism. Help by writing a letter in advance of the school year to each of the child's teachers. Note his interests, likes and dislikes, and what helps him succeed. Consider focusing on the child as a whole person to convey he is more than his autism versus strictly honing in on his disability.

Identify a safe person. Bullying is a real threat to kids with autism. They look like "typical" kids but act differently. This makes them easy targets for bullies. Teach kids with autism the difference between being teased and being bullied, and identify a person at school to whom they can turn if they feel unsafe.

Volunteer. Ball recommends parents spend time in their child's classroom if possible. She volunteers in her son's class each week and says it helps her see where her son struggles. Her presence also allows the teacher to ask her questions about her son's behavior so his needs are better understood and met.

Build social skills away from school. Parents can help their child navigate school's social environment by creating social opportunities outside of school. These can be structured activities like adaptive sports or art programs or more informal settings like a playdate with family friends.

Know the special education laws. Ball advises parents to learn all they can about Article 7 and individualized education programs. Workshops are available throughout Indiana and online. A good understanding of children's rights will equip parents to better advocate for their child.

Set expectations. All kids rise to the expectations parents and teachers have of them. While parents may have to shift their expectations of acceptable behavior and support their child with autism more and differently, Pratt says expectations are important. "We always have to have expectations of kids. If we don't, then they are never going to rise up," she said.

Don't accommodate negative behavior. Do not make excuses for socially inappropriate behavior. Pratt believes that excusing socially unacceptable behaviors will ultimately hinder the child's performance in school. Address these issues head on and the child will have an easier time getting along at school.

Start early. Pratt says enhancing communication and social skills as a family when kids are young helps set them up for the future. Seek therapeutic interventions as soon as a child receives a diagnosis of autism.

Raise kind kids. Attention parents of neurotypical kids: teach your children that kids with autism are kids too. They want friends. They want acceptance. They just have a hard time knowing how to make or keep friends. Encourage kids to buddy up with a child with autism and serve as a peer role model. Need help explaining autism? Books for all levels are now available that help explain the disorder.

Tags: Health, In This Issue, Special Needs

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