The post below is from school psychologist Dr. Peter Faustino, New York Delegate to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and member of the Autism Speaks Family Services Committee. Dr. Faustino co-founded the Student Clubs for Autism Speaks at Fox Lane Middle School, which helps further the mission of Autism Speaks through education, awareness, friendship and fundraising.
The transition back to school can be a challenging experience at times for our families. What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve seen families face when the first day of school arrives?
I would say the biggest obstacles are two fold: First is trusting that your children will be fine on their first day. The nervous energy that accompanies any big milestone like the first day or new school can create anxiety in parents. Do things to help you stay positive and calm because it will reflect on your children. They are often very attuned to parents’ behavior and will take their lead from what you say and do…so stay positive even if you have reasons to worry.
And second is sharing of information. I remind teachers all the time to reach out and communicate. If it helps, send your child with a note or email sharing all the things they like or dislike or can or can’t eat. Don’t be afraid to share what your goals and wishes are for the school year. Teachers welcome this information. And it just might help alleviate your concerns on that first day.
Are there any tips you can share for parents who have children on the spectrum going to school this year for the first time?
Visit the school and take pictures! Rehearsal, practice and exposure are some of the hallmarks of how we work with students on the spectrum, so starting school for the first time should be no different. Many schools will provide plenty of information before the first day, but if they don’t, go and visit the school!
Plenty of staff are in the building setting up and if you explain your unique situation it is a great time to meet friendly faces in a quiet setting. If the building isn’t open by some chance, then play on the playground or walk around the school to get used to the sights and sounds. Walking the halls and sitting in the chairs will give both the child and parent a great visual on how the first day might look.
Are there any best practices you’ve seen that can help parents when getting their child ready for going back to school?
I am a big advocate on sleep. And I know well the challenges that children on the spectrum face with both sleep and routines, but start early. Try to adjust the bedtime, morning routine, sounds and expectations. Only by trialing the morning and bus routine will you figure out the myriad of things you miss versus talking through a plan.
And focus on the details. What alarm will wake your child, what will they have for breakfast that first week, and what are they going to wear? Similar to social stories, we must prepare our children for the unwritten expectations that are about to happen. Don’t assume they remember last September or can transfer all the skills for starting school.
Children with autism who take the bus to school sometimes have difficulty being in that new environment. Would you have any recommendations for families who are preparing their family for that transition?
The bus is such a unique environment, but I find bus drivers and transportation workers to be the kindest and hardest working group I have met. If you can make a connection (by phone or in person to the drivers), then reach out to review the nuances of where to sit and who might be on the bus.
Somteimes students are great with choice and other times we need to control that environment. Knowing your child and their strengths or struggles will help prevent problems. If they are very rigid then explain that there are different routes to get to the school or drive those routes ahead of time. Be sure to review the safety rules with your child and practice at home in a make shift bus (you are never too old to pretend).
And finally because the bus can be very social – talk to the school about identifying 3-5 students on the bus who can serve as peer buddies. Research suggests that better than 1 friend is asking 3-5 to help “watch out for” or “coach” a student with ASD.
What advice would you give to educators who may have a new student on the autism spectrum this school year?
Talk and communicate with that student’s parents. They will know the child so much better than you will ever and why reinvent the wheel? Send home a form asking for certain information or schedule a call or meeting (early) to discuss everything you would like to know and things you never dreamed of! Parents want to trust you as their child’s teacher and share in the hopes and dreams for progress and success. This journey starts with good communication.
And when in doubt, turn to the Autism Speaks School Community Tool Kit for advice!