Brenda Smith Myles, Ph.D. is a consultant with the Ziggurat Group. She is also the author of over 100 books and articles on autism and Asperger Syndrome including Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments: Practical Solutions for Tantrums, Rage and Meltdowns and Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence: Practical Solutions for School Success. This article first appeared in the August 2003 issue of The OARacle, OAR’s monthly newletter.
The most frequent question asked by parents of new and returning school students this time of the year usually focuses on the subject of how they help their children succeed during the new school year. As a parent of a daughter myself, I know that both parents and children are usually anxious starting a new school year. And for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), there are often additional concerns. Parents worry about how the child will fare academically, socially and emotionally. Likewise, students often have concerns about facing a new teacher, making friends and overall, any changes in their structured school life.
Parents and teachers can work together to help children overcome these difficulties by preparing the child before the start of a term and trading critical information that will help alleviate stress on everyone. This process can begin at a meeting during the previous school year to discuss the child’s individualized education plan (IEP), a time where parents frequently get to meet their child’s new teacher.
Before the start of the new school year, parents can resume that critical dialogue by scheduling a time to go to the school with their child to meet the teacher and familiarize themselves with their classroom and the general layout of the school. Even if it’s the same classroom as last year, changes such as a new seat assignment may wreak havoc for a child with Asperger Syndrome or ASD on the first day. By visiting school before the year begins and finding out in advance about the changes to come, children will not have to face an unwelcome surprise.
Prior to the visit, parents should consider asking the teacher to pose for a photograph or provide a photo of him or her to show the child after the meeting to familiarize the child with their new authority figure or acquaint the beginning student with the concept of a teacher. Parents can also bring along a video camera to the meeting to videotape the school and classroom for the child to watch later. For new students, having them watch video of the teacher instructing her class from last year can be a great tool in helping a child relax in the classroom atmosphere.
Some teachers may have little to no experience with autism or having children with Asperger Syndrome or ASD in their classroom. Thus, they need the parents of these children to give them a window into the child’s emotional world such as how they act when they are sad, frustrated or happy. At the earliest opportunity, parents should sit down with their child’s teacher to discuss their child’s likes, dislikes and stressors. Likewise, moms and dads should identify the type of environment in which the child learns best, activities the child succeeds in and the state of the child’s organizational skills. Moreover, by giving the teacher a general understanding of your child’s strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and behaviors, you will greatly aid him or her in planning classroom activities accordingly. At the same time, you will help give your child a greater capacity for learning and prevent stressful situations for the child and teacher.
Mothers and fathers can also lay the groundwork for the child to form a social network by identifying students in the classroom the child already knows such as children from their previous classroom or the neighborhood. Teachers should be made aware of social activities the child does and doesn’t do well and any special arrangements the child should have during recess. Because of a lack of understanding in social situations, children with ASD often need structured activities to occupy their time during recess or free time such as study periods in middle or high school. Knowing this ahead of time can help the teacher come up with ideas for activities.
Lastly, parents and teachers should decide on how best to trade feedback about the child. Whether it’s by e-mail, phone, a shared journal or weekly meetings, parents and teachers should communicate regularly to keep up with the child’s progress. Teachers should remember that when speaking to a parent, they should always present the child’s accomplishments first and then discuss other aspects of the child’s performance. By supporting one another as members of a team, parents and teachers can help the student accomplish goals and enjoy a successful school year.