6 Back-to-School Tips for Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum
Although my daughter on the spectrum graduated from college two years ago, I remember holding my breath at the beginning of each school year wondering if Samantha would adapt to new schools, teachers and classmates. Often the school year felt like a roller coaster, so I’m hoping that what I learned from my experiences with Samantha will help parents and their kids on the autism spectrum enjoy a smoother ride.
1. Clothing: if your child on the spectrum doesn’t wear a uniform to school, he or she can transition into the classroom by wearing summer shorts and t-shirts. That’s one less change in routine and one less disruption. Stock up on fall and winter clothes in advance of the season, as soon as they are available in stores. As always, you want to avoid mobs and rushing. If your child is having a bad day, you don’t want to feel pressured to shop. If you’re shopping far enough in advance, you’ll have the luxury of choosing a better day. If your child wears a uniform to school, getting dressed on weekdays will be simpler, but you will still need to buy weekend clothes.
Laying out a clean uniform or a choice of outfit the night before saves time and reduces stress in the morning. Ask for your child’s input. Take this opportunity to develop the life skill of choosing appropriate attire for the weather and occasion. Is it going to rain? Put out galoshes and raincoats. Will it be chilly in the morning, waiting for the bus? Leave out a sweater or light jacket. Dialogue with your child about these choices and why they make sense.
When your children on the spectrum are young, it’s important to make it easy for them to dress independently. I recommend sneakers with Velcro instead of laces, zippers over buttons, and soft stretchy fabrics that slip on and off easily. You may need to remove all tags and labels to accommodate sensory issues. My daughter ripped out scratchy labels, often tearing her clothes unless I snipped them out first. Finally, try to find some fun in clothing selection. Let your child wear their favorite color and develop their own sense of style.
2. Bedtime: If possible, establish a routine for school nights. For years, my daughter listened to the same Linda Ronstadt tape before falling asleep. Your child may prefer to read a story, watch TV or play video games in order to relax before bed. The goal is to ensure that your child gets enough sleep so he or she can function at their best. (Mom and Dad also need time to unwind.) Establish a reasonable bedtime for school days, weekends and vacations, and help your child stick to it.
3. Lunch: Make sure your child has healthy, well-balanced choices in their lunch box. My daughter insisted on a green apple every single day. Why not? I always gave her one, along with her sandwich and juice box. It’s important to honor your child’s taste preferences and sensitivities. Some kids need each food item to be carefully separated; others avoid certain textures or colors. Food fights aren’t worth it. Pack a lunch your child will eat.
4. Time Management: Help your child figure out how much time he or she needs to get ready for school. For younger children, you set the alarm, lay out the clothes, and serve breakfast. As your child gets older, he or she can begin to take over these responsibilities. Your mission is to gradually make yourself obsolete. Will your 8-year-old reliably brush his or her teeth without a reminder? Is your daughter able to comb the knots out of her own hair, or will she walk out the door looking disheveled? At 10, my daughter brushed her teeth, dressed herself without help, poured her own bowl of Cheerios, but brushing her hair properly still required assistance.
5. Mental Preparation: If your child’s previous school year was wonderful, be sure to remind him or her of last year’s success. Will they see a favorite teacher or classmate who’s been away all summer? Does your child love art or music class? If last year was difficult, emphasize all the ways that this year will be better. Cheerlead your child into a better vision. For example, “Now you’re in 8th grade and you get the privilege of leaving school for lunch” (if that is true at your child’s school). Reassure them: “You definitely will not have that same math teacher again.” Ask your child what they’re looking forward to and what they’re anxious about. Above all, reassure them that you are there to help with whatever problems may come up, just like you were last year. You can remind your child about their past accomplishments. “Remember when you thought you’d never ride a bike or learn long division?” And then help them set achievable goals. “I bet you’ll be able to read chapter books this year.”
6. Medical Check-Up: How is your kid’s vision? Weak eyesight interferes with learning at school, but it may not be obvious. My daughter had 20/20 vision, but she also had a condition called exotropia (where her eye drifted out). Exotropia prevented her from seeing the world in three dimensions and turned out to be the main reason she wasn’t making good eye contact. Sometimes a good pair of glasses or the right eye exercises can make all the difference.
Many children with autism have sensory motor issues like dysgraphia. It’s important to address these challenges one by one. Maybe your child will need a keyboard or occupational therapy or both. Set your child up to succeed by anticipating and addressing their issues before they become chronic problems. Finally, make sure your child’s evaluations are up to date so they start school with all their accommodations in place.
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