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At a recent seminar, I was asked by several parents what they could do to best help their children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the challenging classroom environment of today’s schools. Having worked on both sides of this issue as an educator and parent of a child with ASD, I know well the challenges parents face.

Probably the first and most important task for parents is to find teachers who will bond and make caring relationships with your child. This is true for all children certainly, but for children with ASD, a teacher will need to make many modifications frequently throughout the year, many times on the fly. Having a professional that you can trust with your child who genuinely has their best interests at heart will go a long way to school success.

Next, help your child build opportunities to make friends at school and in the neighborhood. As parents of children on the spectrum, we have all had our fair share of play dates that were just difficult. It is important to continue to work with your child, his peers, and their parents. Open and honest discussion will facilitate acceptance and understanding that will help grow these connections. The idea is to build and foster a peer group beginning when your child is young so that those peers will come to understand and appreciate your child. By having some strong relationships to lean on, your child will not feel isolated and alone.

Finally, keep those lines of communication open even when you don’t feel like you can give any more. Have honest conversations with school professionals about your concerns for your child and bring them into your trust and confidence. By building a reliable team, you can all work to support your child with ASD. As you do so, it is helpful for you and the team to understand that:

  1. Inclusion does not equal mainstreaming. Many parents are surprised to find out that including a child with ASD in school does not mean including that child in every activity. Rather, it is about starting out in successful environments and building up to more challenging ones. Every child is different, and this is particularly true of children on the spectrum. Keep in mind that the goal of education is a process, and it takes time for all children to adapt and learn. Don’t rush it as a parent, and instead let your child’s success guide you.
  2. Social environments may create great stress and confusion for children on the spectrum. Because school is a very social experience for all children, children with autism in particular have great difficulty in interpreting social cues and making successful choices. Their time to receive information and process it is nearly double or triple that of a neurotypical child. Picture schedules and social stories keep a child with ASD centered and directed with a quick visual reference.
  3. Tactile stimulation can be important for many children with autism, and they may indeed need that stimulation to calm themselves during activities that are challenging or even scary to them. Tactile stimulation can take the form of weighted vests worn either over or under their clothing, weighted pencils, and sandpaper under their writing assignments.
  4. Many children with ASD benefit from a sensory-friendly environment. Glues, craft materials, and other common school items produce a scent that is quite difficult for some children with ASD. Frequently, these common smells will trigger an episode that could have otherwise been avoided if the significant adults are aware and prepared to proactively address them. Many alternatives do exist that are scent free or low odor.
  5. Children with ASD may need space to regroup more frequently and for longer periods than their peers. They are not just disengaging from tasks that are difficult for them, but rather, they are going through a series of resets and need a space to do so. By providing a method and a process, children on the spectrum can move or be directed to a designated place to regroup, giving them the opportunity to re-engage at a later point in the lesson.
  6. Having a clear, predictable pattern to the day gives children with autism a “road map.” Being able to maintain routines makes things smoother for them and greatly improves their success rates.

The best way to facilitate an inclusive environment in school is for an open and honest dialogue to regularly occur between the family and relevant school staff. Well in advance of any foreseeable school change (change in grade level, schools, etc.), parents should proactively approach school staff to either formulate or maintain relationships that will allow for plenty of forward planning. This makes school staff more ready to support a child with ASD and puts both staff and parents more at ease.

Scott Fowler, whose son has autism, trains school system employees, among others, to promote and provide awareness of autism spectrum disorders.

Scott Fowler has worked in public education for over two and a half decades, serving as a teacher, lead teacher, assistant principal, and principal and working in a central office capacity. Additionally, he is the parent of a child on the spectrum. He has provided trainings for teachers/educators, the hospitality industry, fire/rescue/EMS, law enforcement, and other enterprises that benefit from autism awareness. He is available for speaking engagements and consultations and can be reached at