Coping with school life: practical strategies to help autistic children
Most parents have some worries about how their child will manage, but they can listen to their child talking about their day. Things don’t always go perfectly, but on there are established ways of sorting out problems and celebrating successes.
For parents of children with autism life can be different. Inclusion in a mainstream school is now much easier than previously and it can be both a successful and desirable way forward. However, there are many questions and concerns. Who can they trust to understand their child, give extra help and sort out the odd problems that occur? Will the child have any friends, how will they cope with changing for PE or manage the busy noisy dinner hall and unstructured break times?
All of the thinking and guessing needed to make sense of the verbal and social demands of school takes a lot of extra effort. Children may end come out of school tired and irritable and this subsequently fuels that parental concern about how things are going.
Mainstream school: strategies to help autistic children settle and thrive
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1. Communicate information in ways that work
Parents will often have detailed knowledge about their child. The trick is to get this information to the school in practical ways that work amid busy timetables.
The most important thing is to GO VISUAL; make sure the child can see what is expected by using visual timetables, pictures, photographs, or if the child reads well, through written lists and prompts.
2. Make using visual prompts part of everyday life
Make the use of these supporting strategies easy to use and a matter of habit, not just something talked about or used at when things go wrong. For example:
- If a child arrives with a visual timetable that reminds them how to change for PE attached to their kit bag, it will more likely be used.
- Visual timetables displayed on a lunchbox lid will help a child remember how to cope with packed lunch.
- A timetable for what to do at break periods in a child’s coat pocket can remove uncertainty at this unstructured time.
3. Catch up with teachers at agreed meetings
4. Prepare for meetings with written notes
- Lunch times are making Tom anxious and he is not eating his packed lunch.
- Tom has sensory issues about hearing and sound and this makes him very upset.
- It would really help at dinnertime if he could wear ear defenders/sit at a table near the door/go in first and sit with someone he knows/go in last when most people have gone and there is no pressure to eat fast.
- Please could we talk about this and decide what to do?
For many parents, the onset of school is full of butterflies and varying degrees of uncertainty and anxiety. For parents with autistic children there are many more anxieties to cope with and questions to ask. It’s an undeniable fact that things will go wrong and not always as planned, but if parents and the school have set up a way of working together it is amazing how both children and the staff working with them gain confidence and flourish.
Gina Davies is a qualified Speech and Language Therapist who turned her passion for communication development into practical and intervention strategies for parents and professionals dealing with autism. She has worked with hundreds of autistic children in schools, nurseries and residential settings, and directly with parents, carers and families.