Autism is by no means a rare condition, though there is still a great deal of research that needs to be completed in order to truly understand the cause of this condition and the best way to treat it. If you have a child who suffers from autism, just getting through the day can be wrought with challenges. The thought of sending your autistic child to school – to an environment that could be scary and overwhelming for your child – may cause you to panic. With education and preparation, however, you can get your autistic child ready for school.
In this article you will learn some background information about autism to help you understand the unique challenges your child may face in school. You will also receive some detailed tips to help prepare yourself and your child to make the transition into school as smooth as possible. The more prepared you are, and the more prepared your child is, the better he will be able to transition into a school setting.
Understanding the Basics of Autism
Autism spectrum disorder, more commonly known as autism, is actually a general term for a group of complex disorders affecting brain development. Autism affects the child’s social interactions as well as his verbal and nonverbal communication skills and repetitive behaviors. Every child with autism is unique, though in general autism seems to be rooted in early brain development. Signs of autism tend to manifest between the ages of 2 and 3 years, though they can certainly appear earlier or later. Autism is frequently associated with intellectual disabilities as well as difficulties with motor coordination and, in some cases, physical health issues as well.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 1 in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum – studies have also shown that autism is four or five times more common in boys than in girls. As common as autism is, there is no known cause for this disorder and there is no one type of autism either. Scientists have been able to identify a number of genetic mutations that may be associated with autism, but most cases seem to be the result of a combination of various genetic and environmental risk factors. Even though many people with autism struggle with motor coordination or have cognitive delays, as many as 40% have above average intellectual ability and many of those who are nonverbal are still able to communicate via other means. All of this goes to show that an autistic child may not be your “typical” student, but he is just as capable and deserving of receiving a quality education as any other child.
Challenges for Autistic Children in School
Autism comes in many forms and manifests in many ways which leads to a number of serious challenges in the school environment. Many of these challenges are related to cognitive processing delays which may delay the child’s ability to process verbal or written language – autistic students may be just as capable of learning the material as typical students, but it may take them a little bit longer to process it. Another challenge many autistic children face in school is sensory perception issues – a lack of depth perception, a poor sense of balance, or a sensitivity to certain sounds. Social skill deficits are very common in children with autism – this challenge is particularly difficult for teachers to understand and accommodate if they have not had special education training. Autistic students may also suffer from motor skill challenges which may mean that simple tasks like taking tests or completing homework could take them longer than other students.
Tips for Parents to Make a Smooth Transition
If you have a child with autism, you may need to start preparing him early – before he even sets foot in the classroom. Caring for a child with autism comes with unique challenges but there are things that parents can do to help make the transition into school as smooth as possible. Here are some tips:
- Start by getting a really thorough assessment of your child such as an Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) to assess your child’s unique social and communication behavior. Having this detailed information about your child can help with the development of his IEP.
- Give your child’s teachers specific instructions about how to interact with your child. If you know that your child needs an extra minute to process instructions, make sure his teachers know that so they can give him a little bit of extra time. If he needs to be shown how to complete a task twice before he can replicate it, make that known as well. Whatever your child’s unique needs may be, make sure that his teachers are aware of them.
- If your child is entering an integrated classroom (one with “typical” students as well as special needs students), ask the teacher to speak to the class about your child’s autism. Forming friendships will be very important for your child but many children can be scared by what they do not understand – learning about your child’s differences up front can help to prevent your child from being alienated by others in the classroom.
- Stay involved at your child’s school. You do not need to go so far as sitting in the classroom with your child, but you should definitely volunteer at school events and join the PTA so you can stay up-to-date with school happenings. If you notice room for improvement in the school’s special education program, speak up and work with the school to make some changes!
- Be prepared to do some extra work at home. Many autistic students require more repetitions and practice to master key concepts – things that there simply isn’t enough time in the school day to accomplish. Stay on top of your child’s curriculum and work with him at home as much as possible to make sure that he stays on track at school.
- Have a plan for what your child’s teacher should do if your child should happen to have a meltdown. Many autistic children are overly sensitive to noise, lights, crowded situations, or touch. Make sure your child’s teacher understands his individual sensitivities and tell her how to properly handle the situation to help your child calm down.
Another thing that might help your child make the transition into school more smooth is to start practicing your school routine a week early. Practice driving or walking your child to school and show him where his new classroom is going to be. If possible, schedule a meet-up with his teacher so she will be familiar to him when he comes to school on that very first day. Make sure your child knows how to find the water fountain and the bathroom and any other places he might need to go.
Caring for a child with autism can be very challenging, especially when other people like teachers and fellow students get involved. By taking a detailed assessment of your child and taking simple steps for preparation, you can help to make the transition as smooth and stress-free as possible. Just remember that you will need to keep working with your child and his teachers throughout the year to make sure that he gets the education ne needs and makes as much progress as he should be.