’Tis the Season … for Opportunities!

 

Vickie Dieter is an Autism Resource Specialist in the Catawba Valley region and mom to a son with autism.

Many families who have children and other family members with an Autism Spectrum Disorder have a collection of war stories and battle scars (emotional and physical) associated with the holiday season. Children, youth, and adults with autism who already struggle with over-stimulation, change, and disruption are bombarded with a barrage of sights, smells, sounds, schedule changes, and challenging social situations during the holidays. While many families enjoy the holidays and find these sensory and social experiences exciting and pleasurable, they can cause increased anxiety and discomfort for people with ASD. But, as difficult as the season can be, the holidays offer unique learning opportunities for teaching your child coping, social, and academic skills.

The holidays were not pleasant for our child and family, especially during his first six years or so. I remember feeling helpless and desperate to do SOMETHING to make the holidays more tolerable. It helped me when I was able to shift my focus beyond the difficulties associated with the holidays and take a proactive approach to help my son have successful, positive experiences. Focusing my efforts on pinpointing the root of my son’s behaviors and researching strategies to help him cope in difficult situations helped me gain a sense of control. The perception I had of our family as prisoners of our son’s disability changed when the strategies I tried with him began to have positive results. Over time, my son became more and more engaged in holiday activities, and our family has enjoyed many traditions and celebrations with family and friends.

I hope the following ideas will help your child and family share a more meaningful and positive holiday experience:

Use visual images, objects, videos, songs, and foods associated with the holidays to explain abstract concepts and deeper meanings of holiday traditions and religious beliefs.

Use a nativity set to help your child understand the meaning of Christmas.

A dreidel can be used to explain a historical element of Hanukah.

Turkey, corn, and other foods (pictures, real food, or play food) can be used to represent the pilgrims and Native Americans coming together for the first Thanksgiving.

Incorporate the Kinara, a visual symbol of African history and heritage in discussions about Kwanzaa.

Help your child understand what other people are thinking and feeling through the use of social stories, books, and videos.

For example, the characters in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas have exaggerated facial expressions that can make it easier for children to identify the characters’ feelings. When reading this book with your child, help him or her make the connection between the characters’ facial expressions and what they are feeling. Use the context of the story to discuss the reasons that the characters feel happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc. Talk about how the characters’ actions affect the feelings and thoughts of others in the story.

Use your child’s preferred interests to engage him or her in holiday activities.

For example, for a child who has a strong interest in tornados, you might modify The Night Before Christmas story to include a tornado that interferes with Santa’s flight from the North Pole.

If your child has an intense interest in flags, try to engage him or her in a game to match flags to their respective countries. Explore holiday traditions and practices of each country and compare how your family’s traditions and beliefs are alike or different from people in other countries.

Use holiday symbols and images to promote academic skills.

Sort unbreakable ornaments by color, shape, type, or category.

Label holiday items throughout your home with words written on sticky notes or post cards, e.g. Santa, tree, pumpkin, candle, gift, Zawadi, gelt.

Practice addition and subtraction using holiday objects as manipulatives.

Work on sequencing with pictures, objects, stories, etc. Drawing or building a snowman is a fun visual sequencing activity.

Strategies to teach coping skills

Employ strategies that have worked for your child in the past but are no longer necessary under normal circumstances. For example, if your child responded well to the use of visuals but has “outgrown” the need for them, consider trying visual schedules, cues, or gestures again to help him or her understand and prepare for unexpected, unfamiliar, or overwhelming situations.

Coping with sensory overload and changes in routine can be exhausting and stressful for individuals with ASD. Try to pay attention to “warning” signs that your child is feeling tired, anxious, or frustrated and use this opportunity to help him or her learn to ask for a break through the use of visual and verbal prompts, redirection, or calming strategies. Ask your child’s teacher what type of behavior management system is used in the classroom and try to use that familiar system or a modified version in other settings. The Autism Society of North Carolina Bookstore has some great books and videos about using visual supports to help your child recognize and manage his or her feelings and behavior. The Incredible 5 Point Scale is one of my personal favorites.

Learn to recognize when your child has had enough. All of the tricks in the book probably won’t help once your child reaches the dreaded point of no return – parents, you know what I’m talking about.

Happy Holidays!

Contact one of ASNC’s Autism Resource Specialists for additional information and resources. Vickie Dieter can be reached at vdieter@autismsociety-nc.org or 828-256-1566.

 

 

Managing Frustration and Anxiety

 

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Dr. Jed Baker, noted autism expert and author, shared some of his expertise with parents and professionals last week at a one-day conference in Raleigh. His presentation was titled “Managing Frustration and Anxiety and Teaching Social Skills” and provided strategies for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, anxiety, mood disorders, and learning challenges.

For those who could not attend, we are sharing highlights of the portion of Dr. Baker’s presentation on managing frustration and anxiety. You can also learn more with his award-winning books, available in the ASNC Bookstore at www.autismbookstore.com.

Keep Your Cool

Dr. Baker’s first tip was that caregivers must learn to control their own emotions. “If you can be cool, you can get someone else cool,” he said. Reacting to someone having a meltdown by either giving them what they want or forcing their compliance is not effective, he said. Giving in doesn’t last; it feels good in the moment but has disastrous long-term consequences. Getting angry comes from not feeling respected. Caregivers can use fear and unpredictability to scare individuals into complying, but in the long run, the individuals don’t trust you anymore, they don’t want to be in your home or class, and they will not like you, he said.

“90 percent of teaching and parenting is tolerance,” Dr. Baker said. Caregivers must tolerate their own discomfort long enough to think about what to do and not give in or get angry.

So how do caregivers control their own emotions? Number one, by having hope! Tthink of challenges as a temporary issue that can be fixed, not a character flaw. Know that things will get better eventually as long as you stick to strategies. Studies have shown that parents who are optimistic stick to strategies and therefore bad behaviors lessen over time.

Two other things to keep in mind when attempting to control your own reactions: Realize that the individual’s behavior is not intended to challenge your authority but is rather a reflection of their lack of coping skills. Also, do not worry about what other people think. Most observers understand that a child having a meltdown in public is not a reflection of your competence, and they do not blame you. You can gain respect by controlling yourself, not the child.

Lastly, be sure to take care of yourself and maintain balance in your life. What are you doing to make yourself happy? Dr. Baker suggested trying yoga, meditation, and exercise as great ways to reduce your own stress and enable yourself to maintain control of your emotions in the face of meltdowns.

Build a Positive Relationship

The first step to managing an individual’s behavior is to build a positive relationship, Dr. Baker said. It is very important for children to know that adults around them actually do care about them; show warmth and caring.

Ensure that the individuals know what is expected of them by using structure, visual supports, and differentiated instruction. Fair is giving everyone what they need, not teaching everyone at the same level, Dr. Baker explained.

You can also build confidence through the 80/20 rule. Enable individuals to succeed by starting with tasks or lessons they already grasp, then move on to new or more difficult material for the last 20 percent. If you start with the difficult material, they will feel defeated, Dr. Baker said. If you don’t let them make a mistake or fail the first eight times, they will believe they can succeed.

And finally, avoid power struggles. For example on homework, allowing breaks or limiting the amount of time they spend on it is not giving in, it is managing the work. You could also try doing the work with them or doing the first problem for them.

Manage Crises

When an argument, meltdown, or crisis does come up, first be willing to take some time to manage it. Listen to their side of the situation, agree, and apologize when necessary. Show some sympathy; there is always a kernel of truth in why they are acting out. Then collaborate and ask them “what do you want? Let’s find the right way to get that.”

If the individual is too distraught to use logic or reason, try to distract them and change their mood or focus with novel items, special interests, or sensory activities. Dr. Baker said that when he is working with individuals on the spectrum, he always keeps his pockets full of things he can use to distract them. Distraction is not rewarding the behavior as long as you don’t give them what they were having a tantrum over. If the individual is trying to avoid a task, distraction helps them avoid it, so give them a legitimate way such as taking a short break or breaking the task into pieces.

Once the crisis is over, make a plan for next time.

Work on Repeat Behavior Problems

If the individual is repeating unwanted behavior, explore why it happens. Observe and keep a journal so that you know what happened before, during, and after the behavior. The difficulty is that causes for the behavior come before the behavior, when you might not be paying attention. But with practice and time, you should be able to discover the trigger for the behavior.

Some of the typical triggers Dr. Baker listed were:

  1. Internal issues – hunger, exhaustion, illness
  2. Sensory issues – noise light, touch, overstimulation, boredom
  3. Lack of structure – not enough visual supports to give expectations
  4. Challenging or new work, feared situations
  5. Having to wait, not getting what one wants, disappointments
  6. Threats to self-esteem such as losing, mistakes, criticism
  7. Unmet wishes for attention – being ignored, wanting others to laugh

Once you have data on the trigger(s), you can develop a prevention plan. Dr. Baker mentioned his No More Meltdowns app that will help caregivers keep track of behaviors. The app allows you to upload to www.symtrend.com/nmm, which will analyze data and give you a prevention plan.

A good behavior plan will change or remove the triggers as much as possible, teach the individual skills to deal with the triggers, and reward new skills. If the individual is not already frustrated, you can also use a loss system when they do not use new skills to deal with the triggers.

Demands for Work

When an individual is frustrated by demands for work, there are several ways you can change that trigger. First, model and prompt rather than test. This goes along with the 80/20 rule mentioned previously. “Teach” them something they already know first, so they succeed. You also can give them a choice of which work they do, or use their special interests to make the work more appealing. Visual supports, such as instructions, outlines, and labels are helpful for many individuals. Finally, try reducing the length of time and using a timer so they can see how long they must keep doing the task.

To help individuals deal with demands for work, teach “trying when it’s hard,” Dr. Baker said. For some individuals, the fear of the work is the trigger, and this can be overcome with gradual exposure. Get them to try a small portion of the work. Teach them to ask to watch first or to ask for help. Tell them that they may take a break for a certain amount of time and then come back to try again. Finally, be willing to negotiate how much they do (unless you know you are working with an individual who will keep negotiating, which Dr. Baker referred to as a “congenital attorney,” much to the audience’s amusement).

Dealing with Fear

Some individuals fear situations that can just be avoided, but many must face their fears because situations cannot be avoided. Start by persuading these individuals that they must deal with their fears. Talk about their strengths and their optimistic future, and then bring up that they should deal with their fears so that the challenge is not in their way anymore. It can be a relief for them to learn that they do not have to change fundamentally, they just have to make it so that the challenge does not stand in the way of their success, Dr. Baker explained.

Then explain anxiety and true vs. false alarms. Being anxious means that the brain lies to you and makes you afraid all the time, rather than just keeping you out of true danger, he said. Help them to think like a scientist and do research on their fears. For example, if they wash their hands constantly because they are afraid of germs, they should research the likelihood of contracting a disease. Let them convince themselves through logic that their anxiety is overblown.

You can also try gradual exposure to their fear. A visual aid of a fear ladder with rungs of exposure can allow for rewards as they reach each rung.

To reduce individuals’ overall anxiety, add exercise, mindfulness meditation, and relaxation techniques. Dr. Baker recommended the resource www.fragrantheart.com. Focusing on the moment means they are not worrying, and it recharges and re-energizes, he said. The best time for many is at night, because they are less occupied, and so that’s when all the worries come out.

Finally, if anxiety is debilitating and other methods are not working, Dr. Baker said neurofeedback and medication can be useful options.

Waiting, Accepting No, Stopping Fun

Dr. Baker offered several strategies for individuals who have meltdowns because they are unable to wait, accept no for an answer, or transition away from preferred activities. A visual timer can help them understand how long they will have to wait or when they must start a new activity. A visual schedule also helps with transitions. “Prime ahead” by discussing what they will gain by waiting or accepting no, and talk about disappointments that might occur during an upcoming period.

Help them accept no by providing what they want or something else that they want at a later time. Use a reward system such as a “disappointment poster” and give them points for waiting, accepting no, and stopping fun.

Self-esteem: Mistakes, Losing, Teasing

For individuals who are upset by losing or mistakes, again the 80/20 rule is useful, Dr. Baker said. Let individuals win or succeed 80 percent of the time to build up goodwill. You also can talk ahead of time about mistakes that might occur but remind them that mistakes help us learn and grow; if you are not making mistakes, you are not trying new things or learning.

For teasing, first protect the individual as much as possible by surrounding them with supportive peers. Peer buddy programs have been shown to be a very effective method of building children up and preventing teasing. When teasing does occur, help them to check it out first to make sure they understood correctly. Perhaps it was not meant to be teasing. Teach them that when they are teased, they should calmly ask the person to stop, showing that the teaser did not get to them and does not control them. If the person does not stop, they should report the behavior.

Unmet Needs for Attention

Some individuals act out to gain attention. To change this trigger, you can schedule attention or special time for the individual so they know they will get it. In the classroom, for example, you could use a timer to count down to when they may speak with the teacher rather than calling out in class. Dr. Baker also recommended looking for appropriate outlets for the individual, such as theater or standup comedy.

Also, teach the individual about positive ways to get attention, stressing that they want to be liked, not just gain attention. Teach them about public vs. private topics, and if in a classroom or other group setting, try to get peers in on it — if the peers laugh when the student says something inappropriate, that is a reinforcement of the negative behavior. Teach the individual the “rules of comedy”: Don’t make fun of vulnerable people. Use slapstick, random thoughts, and self-deprecation.

Sensory Needs

For individuals who engage in self-stimulation such as drumming, flapping, or chewing for sensory needs, you can try to change the triggers by avoiding boredom such as waits or group activities in which they are not engaged, or by modifying frustrating work.

Skills you can teach them include alternative ways and times to self-stimulate and how to be a self-advocate for a better environment, Dr. Baker said. Individuals need to know to ask for what they need, such as less noise or more interaction. On the other hand, they need to know they have a right to the environment that works for them but can’t impose it on everyone else. If they need it quieter, they can ask people nicely, and if they don’t get it, the individual should ask to leave and take a break.

Self-Calming

Dr. Baker also discussed ways to prepare for unexpected triggers. Collaborate with the individual on ways to distract and soothe themselves in the case of upsets. Have them compile a folder of relaxation techniques. Establish safe people whom they can turn to when they need support. Teach them this self-talk: “All problems can be solved if you can wait and talk to the right person.”

Jed Baker, Ph.D. is the director of the Social Skills Training Project, an organization serving individuals with autism and social communication problems. He is on the professional advisory board of Autism Today, ASPEN, ANSWER, YAI, the Kelberman Center and several other autism organizations. In addition, Dr. Baker writes, lectures, and provides training internationally on the topic of social skills training and managing challenging behaviors; he was the keynote speaker at ASNC’s 2015 annual conference.

 

College Options for Students with ASD

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This article was contributed by Nancy Nestor, an Autism Resource Specialist in the Charlotte region, an autism mom, and a former teacher.

This is the time of year when many high school students and their families are thinking about the next steps in their lives – touring colleges, taking the SAT or ACT, and starting college applications. It can be anxiety-inducing as well as exciting. For students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), there may be some special considerations. We will go over these, as well as potential supports and resources.

 

Is your child ready to live independently?

If you are contemplating sending your teen off to college, the Guardianship Capacity Questionnaire is useful to assess readiness for the independence that adulthood brings. The form, which you can find at www.nccourts.org/forms/Documents/846.pdf, asks questions about the person’s ability to independently use language and communicate, take care of their nutritional needs, maintain good hygiene and health, stay safe, live by themselves or in a group, seek and maintain employment, handle finances, and self-advocate. Completing the form will help you know what to work on this year with your teen.

 

College in a traditional program

Once someone graduates from high school with a diploma or an Occupational Course of Study Diploma, they can continue on to college, if that is a reasonable choice for them and they have the grades to support college admission. College students with ASD can still receive academic supports if they meet the following conditions:

  1. They have a current medical diagnosis of autism.
  2. They contact the Office of Student Disability at their college or university to share that they have a disability.

Education in the public school system must be free and appropriate. According to the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, colleges and universities are not required to provide FAPE, free and appropriate public education; however, they must provide appropriate academic adjustments to avoid discrimination against a student on the basis of their disability. Also, if a college or university provides housing to nondisabled students, the same or comparable housing must be accessible to those with disabilities at a location that is convenient and with the same cost.

Although the education is no longer free, a college or university cannot charge extra for providing academic adjustments or for participation in its programs or activities. Once the office of student disability has been notified and given the appropriate information, staff members can work with the student to determine the necessary academic adjustments. Just as with an IEP, the adjustments will be individualized to the student’s needs. In the college setting, academic adjustments include: “auxiliary aids and services, as well as modifications to academic requirements as necessary to ensure equal educational opportunity. Examples of adjustments are: arranging for priority registration; reducing a course load; substituting one course for another, providing note takers, recording devices, sign language interpreters, extended time for testing, and, if telephones are provided in dorm rooms, a TTY in your dorm room; and equipping school computers with screen-reading, voice recognition, or other adaptive software or hardware.”

Also, the Office for Civil Rights states that “In providing an academic adjustment, your postsecondary school is not required to lower or substantially modify essential requirements. For example, although your school may be required to provide extended testing time, it is not required to change the substantive content of the test. In addition, your postsecondary school does not have to make adjustments that would fundamentally alter the nature of a service, program, or activity, or that would result in an undue financial or administrative burden. Finally, your postsecondary school does not have to provide personal attendants, individually prescribed devices, readers for personal use or study, or other devices or services of a personal nature, such as tutoring and typing.”

To learn more about students’ rights, go to http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transition.html.

 

College Through a Comprehensive Transition Program

Students who are graduating with a Certificate of Attendance or an Occupational Course of Study Diploma may be appropriate candidates for one of the Comprehensive Transition Programs. The “Think College” website, www.thinkcollege.net, lists  a variety of two -and four-year programs that are housed in universities, colleges, community colleges, and technical schools across the state.

They offer a variety choices for students, including on-campus, fully inclusive housing with the ability to take regular classes as an audit, partial inclusion in various settings, or living/working within a self-contained group. In some of the programs, the students will receive a certificate for course completion, but a few allow students to work toward a degree.

Because of the success of Comprehensive Transition Programs, many community colleges are strengthening their compensatory education programs to include supports for students on the autism spectrum. Compensatory education classes are inexpensive and sometimes free. If moving away from home is not yet an option, it would be wise to research community college options near your home to see whether they could provide reasonable supports. Many students enroll at the community college level to gain skills they will need for higher level classes and also to get basic requirements out of the way for their major at a university level.

 

Applying for Scholarships and Grants

Although there are no autism-specific scholarships available for North Carolina residents at this time, students with autism are free to compete for scholarships. Be sure to check several sources, such as your school guidance counselor, local organizations, parents’ employers, and the state. Many colleges and universities also offer scholarships.

Given the academic struggles that often accompany autism, many students do not have the grade-point average or the community involvement to be considered for scholarships. In cases like this, they can apply for federal and state grants. Before students can apply for these funds, they must fill out a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid at https://fafsa.ed.gov/.

To learn more about financial aid, go to www.collegescholarships.org/grants/disabilities.htm. When looking into a Comprehensive Transition Program, be especially careful because some programs do accept Pell Grants, but not federal student loans.

If a young adult has Innovations waiver funds, at least one NC program can use the funds toward education. Beyond Academics, a CTP Program at UNCG, is a state-accredited service provider and can work with any Managed Care Organization (MCO) in the state. Although Innovations funds cannot be used for class tuition and books, they can be used for supplemental support as required in their Individual Support Plan, which has been approved by their MCO.

 

Learn more

Upcoming workshops

  • Preparing for College Starts at Home: Webinar online on Tuesday, Sept. 13. Register now
  • Considering College? Prepare, Plan, Succeed!: Workshop in Raleigh on Tuesday, Sept. 27. Register now

Contact an Autism Resource Specialist near you.

Find books on autism and college, employment, and transitions in the ASNC Bookstore. Two we especially like are Life After High School and Smile & Succeed for Teens.

 

Nancy Nestor can be reached at nnestor@autismsociety-nc.org or 704-894-9678.

Moving from Awareness to Acceptance

 

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This April, for Autism Awareness Month, the Autism Society of North Carolina is focusing on acceptance and inclusion, not just awareness.

We want people to know about autism’s challenges, so they can be more accommodating. But we also want them to know how their lives can be better when they include people with autism. Children and adults with autism have much to teach us, and they have unique gifts that can make our communities better places to live for all of us.

How can you help share this message and move your communities from awareness to acceptance? Check out these ideas:

  • Use the hashtag #A2AforAutism everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest!
    • Share photos of autism awareness events that you attend.
    • Share pics or videos of your child with autism playing with neighborhood friends. Or, if you have a neurotypical child, them with their friends with autism. (Remember to get parents’ permission for sharing on social media.)
    • Share photos, videos, or stories of your loved ones with autism that show off their unique talents.
    • Share stories of inclusion.
    • Always remember the #A2AforAutism, so we can share your images, too.
  • Share ASNC’s social media posts throughout the month.
  • Join us for World Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day on Saturday, April 2, at Camp Royall
  • TshirtWear the #A2AforAutism T-shirt as often as you can wash it. (Don’t have one? Buy one from the ASNC Bookstore)
  • Put an #A2AforAutism magnet on your vehicle (Also available from the Bookstore)
  • Tell teachers, club leaders, faith communities, etc., about our online materials that can help them create acceptance in their communities.
  • Ask to provide a presentation or display on acceptance in your clubs, schools, faith communities, etc. You can find ideas on our website or the ASNC Communications Department can help you with materials.

We are truly excited about this campaign. Imagine what acceptance could do for our loved ones with autism. We thank you for your efforts throughout April!

 

Make This Your Child’s Best School Year Yet

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Are you ready for back-to-school time? Or does the mere thought of a new school year make you anxious? The Autism Society of North Carolina is ready to partner with you and your child for a successful school year.

Please take advantage of the resources we offer.

IEP-Toolkit-webToolkits: In the past year and a half, we have introduced easy-to-use, accessible toolkits to guide you through challenging times. Several are on school-related topics: The IEP, Behavior & the IEP, and Bullying. All of these free toolkits can be read online or downloaded and printed: http://bit.ly/ASNCtoolkits

Autism Resource Specialists: We have 19 Autism Resource Specialists across the state, standing by to consult with you. They are all parents of children or adults with autism themselves, so they have firsthand knowledge and a unique understanding of what you’re going through. They strive to empower families to be the best advocates for their children. Find the Autism Resource Specialist serving your area: http://bit.ly/AutismResourceSpecialists

Podcasts: We have recently added podcasts to our list of resources, and one of the first discussions we recorded was “Back to School: What You Need to Know and Do for a Successful Start!” with some of the Autism Resource Specialists. You can check out the complete list of available podcasts here: http://www.autismsociety-nc.org/podcasts

Workshops: Our Autism Resource Specialists also share their expertise through workshops, both in-person and online. Some upcoming titles are Autism: Building on Strengths to Overcome Challenges, Preparing for College Starts at Home, and The IEP Process: Building Success for Your Child at School. Find the complete schedule here: http://bit.ly/ASNCWorkshopCalendar

bookstore couponASNC Bookstore: If you are looking for books and videos, our bookstore is the place to go. The ASNC Bookstore is the most convenient place to find the very best autism resources, with over 600 titles. Bookstore staff members are always willing to share recommendations on particular topics. And until Aug. 31, we have a 15% off sale with code BTSS2015. Browse online: www.autismbookstore.com

Chapters & Support Groups: ASNC has more than 50 Chapters and Support Groups around the state. Chapters provide a place where you can receive encouragement from families facing similar challenges and share experiences, information, and resources. Look for one near you: http://bit.ly/ASNCChapters

Our blog: Of course, you already know about our blog because you are reading it right now. But have you subscribed? You don’t want to miss the educational posts from our Autism Resource Specialists or Clinical staff. The recent post, “Preparing for a New School Year: Calm Parent = Calm Child,” gives you a checklist of helpful tips. Read it here.

Stay connected: Last but not least, connect with us! Sign up to receive our monthly email newsletters and the twice-yearly Spectrum magazine at http://bit.ly/ASNCStayInformed. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook. We are constantly sharing helpful information, and we don’t want you to miss any of it.

Still have questions? Please contact us so that we can help you find the help you need:

info@autismsociety-nc.org

800-442-2762 (NC only)

919-743-0204

Autism Society of North Carolina

505 Oberlin Road, Suite 230

Raleigh, NC 27605

Preparing for a New School Year: Calm Parent = Calm Child

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This article was contributed by Nancy Nestor, an Autism Resource Specialist in the Charlotte region, an autism mom, and a former teacher.

With all the hot weather we have had this summer, it is hard to believe, but summer is fading. Before you know it, yellow school buses will fill the streets, packed with students excited to start another year. The change in schedule can be hard for families; transitioning is not usually a strength for people on the spectrum.

Recently I created a chapter presentation on preparing for the new school year, and I wanted to highlight here some of the information others have presented, as well as add a few tips that I found while researching. With a few changes to your life at home, you and your child will be ready for school this year. If you are calm, your child will have an easier time with the transition, too.

Start preparing now

Preparation is key, and now is the time to start. Along with getting new clothes, backpacks, and lunchboxes, fill prescriptions and check your stock of special-diet foods, if that is something your family needs. To find a school menu listing allergens, go to the child nutrition department section of your school system’s website. This will help you figure out which days your child can eat at school and which days you must send lunch.

One of the biggest challenges is the shift back to the school year schedule, but getting up early does not have to be traumatic. It just takes some time. For example, you can begin turning back wake-up times and bedtimes by 15 minutes every four days. A small, slow change will make the whole transition to school time easier.

Work on “waiting skills”

Back-to-school shopping offers plenty of time for our children to wait. This is not always easy, but it is good to practice. Waiting is a skill that is very important in life, such as when your child has to wait before school. Many of our kids use electronic devices to fill waiting time. If your child’s diversion tool is not working as well as it used to, then it may be time to find something new. Whatever you choose, it would be good to use it only when you need your child to wait; otherwise, the attractiveness of the device can wear off sooner.

Practice new skills needed for middle or high school

For students entering middle or high school, a locker and its lock may be part of their day. If your child is not proficient at using a lock or is anxious about it, then now is the time to purchase one and work on it until your child becomes competent and comfortable. Nowadays, there are lots of options for combination locks, and some are much easier to use than others. Of course, the use of a lock and key is very easy, too. Most schools don’t care which kind you get.

Make sure your child is comfortable with sensory tools

Along with washing new school clothes to get rid of the stiffness, you should make sure your child has become comfortable with any new devices you bought to help them cope with sensory issues. Some schools are finicky about comfort items sent from home to ease transitions, but rarely do they discourage items such as noise-blocking headphones and chewy devices, especially when students are in a self-contained class.

Use a morning schedule

Children who are used to following a schedule daily have an easier time learning a new schedule for school. If you put away your “Getting Ready for School” schedule for the summer, it is time to get it out. If you never made one, it is time to do that. For a nonverbal child, visual schedules are a great way to communicate expectation, increase independence, and reduce anxiety. For verbal children, societal expectations are much higher, and schedules can also help them in those areas. Most children learn through play, and play helps decrease anxiety, so make your use of the schedule fun and reinforce proper use with social praise or other rewards. Some parents give a prize to the first one to complete a schedule or to those who beat the timer.

Here are some websites that can help you create a schedule: PBIS World and Do2Learn.

When making a schedule, try using pictures of your child doing the activity. This helps your child understand that the schedule is for him or her, and increases compliance. If you are unable to take pictures of your child, then take pictures of items he or she will need in your house to do the activities on the schedule. For teens who are high-functioning, a checklist with a calendar might work just as well. Use whatever method your child will likely use independently and with accuracy.

Use a social story about going to school

Social stories are a simple way to let your child know what to expect in the future, and they are a great way to help them prepare for going back to school. Often social stories can be used to explain the rules or order of events. They are written in first person so that your child knows it is about him or her. Use a positive tone to reduce anxiety.

Here are some websites that can help you create social stories: Child-Autism-Parent-Cafe.com, Do2Learn, PBIS World, and Supporting Autism Spectrum.

Create a profile of your child for teachers

Even teachers who have taught your child before will be interested to know about new and emerging skills. For those who are new to your child, including regular education teachers; music, art, and other special teachers; speech therapists; and OTs, this information can be invaluable. Having been the teacher on the receiving end of new students, I can say that unfortunately, IEPs from the sending school are not always available to the new teacher on the first day of school. Having a student profile is very helpful.

Because teachers have so many students, you should condense the information to one page. Be sure to include your child’s strengths, areas of challenge, motivators, and strategies in case things do turn toward trouble. It is also very helpful to let teachers know the behaviors that indicate your child is getting stressed, so that they can implement a distraction or a calming technique.

Helpful resources:

  • Website: The Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center provides a step-by-step guide online.
  • Webinar: ASNC will offer an online workshop called “All About Me” on Saturday, Aug. 15. Register here.

If writing is not your thing, you can go to the Do2Learn website, print out the descriptors for the main areas of autism, and then highlight those that define your child. The site also lists strategies that are helpful in those cases, and you can highlight any that have been helpful for your child. If you know of strategies that have been effective at home or school and are not listed, be sure to share these as well.

Other ways to prepare your child

Try reading age-appropriate books about starting school, which should be available at your public library. For some children, listening to a book about someone else starting school is a non-threatening way of bringing up the topic. Another idea is to role-play going to school the first day with your child. Some families use toys to “play the part” of other children in the class or teachers – but don’t use a toy that is already an obsession, or you might create more problems. Just seeing pictures of the school and classmates might be helpful in getting them ready. All of these methods provide a way to resolve any anxiety your child might have about the coming year.

Visit school before the school year starts

A week or so before school starts, arrange a visit. For many of our families, a meeting before school is much more helpful to the student and the teachers than coming to an open house, which is usually overstimulating. This would be a great time to give your child’s personal profile to teachers. Be sure to take pictures, so you can review them with your child several times before the first day of school. Take pictures of the teachers and common places: the lunchroom, playground, gym, and the classrooms where your child will spend time. Try to meet as many of your child’s teachers as is possible. This will help your child develop a mental picture of what to expect, and it will ease anxieties that arise the first day. Also meet the office staff and be sure they know your child. They will be the ones who need to know that your child cannot walk themselves down the hall to a class alone when they are tardy. They will be the ones who greet you on the phone when you call the school, so they need to have an understanding of your child and your life.

Create structure for afterschool, too

Make a schedule for afterschool and create some down time with limited talking and expectations. A day filled with language is tiring for many of our kids, and they need a sensory-free zone to decompress before they begin the expectations of home. For some kids, listening to music is calming.

It is important to get school work out of the way while it is fresh in their memory, so don’t wait too long to start. If working on homework is a problem, break it down into smaller, more manageable parts and reward your child for working independently, perhaps with a short sensory break or a 5-minute break to do some other preferred activity.

Using a schedule helps children realize that the list of work to be done is getting shorter and that they have another break to look forward to after completing more work. For some older students, a checklist might be more appealing. Many students forget to record their homework assignments, so be sure to find out whether their teachers have a website or Wiki site or other means to check on assignments. Lastly, a great way to prepare for the next day is by having your child help pick out their clothes and put all the things they will need for school in a place that will be easy to access in the morning.

Call on us

If you would like more advice, feel free to contact the Autism Resource Specialist for your part of the state. Every year we spend time helping parents solve challenges related to going back to school and schools that don’t seem to be supportive. We will be happy to help you, too.

If you would like more in-depth information on any of these topics, check out the ASNC Bookstore, especially the following categories: Visual Supports, Classroom, and Children’s Books. Through August, you can save 15% on online orders with the code BTSS2015.

We also offer frequent workshops on school-related topics as well as online toolkits; we hope you will take advantage of these resources.

The new school year is here, let’s get it done!

Nancy Nestor can be reached at nnestor@autismsociety-nc.org or 704-894-9678.