Heading back to school after a fun-filled summer is difficult for many children, but some students face more challenges than others. For kids with autism and their families, the transition is a disruption that is anxiety-provoking and requires time, energy and groundwork beyond the usual back-to-school shopping trips to prepare.
"It can be a challenge to navigate the dramatic changes in a child's schedule that take place at the start of the school year," explains Jenny Fischer, clinical director at Cascade Behavioral Intervention. "During the summer months, children often have more free time to do things they enjoy, so it can be difficult to adjust to school routines at the start of the year."
Kelli Davis is an Applied Behavior Analysis Educator at High Desert Education Service District and parent to a child with autism. She says that activities as simple as going to bed and waking up earlier can be harder for children with autism, who often have disordered sleep. Additionally, pressure to move quickly in the morning is stressful for children on the spectrum, who may struggle with everything from feeding themselves to tying their shoes.
"Even just the change in season can be extra trying for this neuro-diverse population that tends to be incredibly sensitive to temperature and textures," says Davis. But the students aren't the only ones who struggle. Davis says that navigating the Individual Education Plan process at the start of the new year can be overwhelming and time consuming for parents as well.
While there are extra challenges for these local families, there are things that can be done in advance and during the transition back to school that can ease the experience for children with autism.
Tips for the Transition
The following are tips from professionals who work with children with autism that are designed help ease the transition back to school.
Fischer suggests adding structure and predictable routines into the summer schedule when possible. Having more structure during the summer will make the transition back to school a less dramatic change in routine.
Davis begins the transition from summer back to school weeks before school starts. She says, "Beginning the bedtime routine weeks in advanced and having very structured routines in place drastically decreases anxiety and negative behaviors."
Fischer says for daily routines that are difficult, it can help to follow a less preferred activity with a preferred activity using "first-then" language. Some examples might be: "first we'll get our shoes on for school, then you can choose the music in the car," or "first you read a page, then I'll read a page," or "first let's get dressed, then we can have your favorite cereal for breakfast."
Maryann Deke, a special education teacher at New Leaf Academy, suggests, "It's helpful to autistic children to visit the school a few days, or even the day before school starts...Families need to ensure all the kinks are worked out."
Along with visiting the school in advance, Davis says parents should ask for a copy of the student's schedule. "Any way we can front load and prep a student to have as few unexpected experiences as possible, the more we are meeting their need to feel safe and secure to navigate the overwhelming experience that each new day brings."
Involving the student in as much of the process of picking new clothes and school supplies is best.
According to Davis, being extremely prepared for the IEP meeting can mean the difference between a successful and awful school year. She recommends using a binder that is organized and set up specifically for an IEP meeting to keep and store all pertinent information. "An IEP team is great and can make all the difference in what kind of experience your child has at school, however, the parent is the expert on all things relevant to their kiddo, so coming into the meeting with the mindset that they are just as equally important and have a serious role in advocating for their child and collaborating with the school is so crucial."
During the IEP meeting, ask questions about how the school is preparing to meet your child's social needs. Is there a peer buddy system of any kind? Who will support the student during unstructured times likes recess and lunch?
While an IEP is a fantastic tool, they are typically between 15 and 30 pages long and include all formal assessments. Davis says most professionals simply don't have the time to read through each student's IEP. "My recommendation is that parents create what I like to call a one-pager. This is a one-page summary of the student's entire IEP, condensed to give current academic levels," she explains.
"Mine says, 'Jackson is an incoming ninth grader currently performing at 7.5 grade level in math, at grade level in science,' etc. Then I list areas of difficulty, which include transition, fine motor deficits and so on. Finally, I list accommodations like preferential seating, extra time for testing and direct instruction." At the beginning of the year Davis prints about 100 of these documents and gives them to anyone who is going to come in contact with her son.
Along with implementing some of the tips above, families with children with autism are not alone. Central Oregon has a robust system of support available to help. The following are some of the local resources that are available.
Autism Treatment Center of Bend: 503-917-1239
Center for Autism and Related Disorders: Phone: 541-640-5601
High Desert Education Service District: Hdesd.org
Autism Society of Bend: autismsocietyoregon.org
Oregon Consortium of Family Network: OCDD.org
Central Oregon Disability Support Network: CODSN.org
Cascade Behavioral Intervention/Cascade ABA: cascadebehavior.com
Oregon Adaptive Sports: oregonadaptivesports.org
Bend Learning Center: bendlearningcenter.com
The Child Center: thechildcenter.org
Healing Reins Therapeutic Riding Center: healingreins.org
Paul's Club: First Thursday of each month dads and male caregivers. Facilitator/Contact: Scott Smallwood: firstname.lastname@example.org
Parent Group at Alyce Hatch: Second Monday of each month parents and caregivers meet at Alyce Hatch Center in Bend. Facilitator/Contact: email@example.com
Redmond Family Group: Second Wednesday of each month parents and caregivers meet at Kaleidoscope Family Center Facilitator/Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ladies Who Lunch: Third Thursday of each month moms and female caregivers meet at The Phoenix Restaurant. Contact Diane Cole: email@example.com
Facebook Group for Central Oregon Moms: Contact Diane Cole to be added: firstname.lastname@example.org