When you have a child on the spectrum you already know that day to day life can take a little bit of extra planning.
Starting school is a big change for all kids (and parents), but for parents of a child with Aspergers or Autism it does help to start the planning early.
The good news is that as your child’s parent you already know them best, and you’re armed with a wealth of information!
How do I start planning?
Find out from your Child and Maternal Health Nurse, Daycare Centre or Kindergarten when schools in your zone might be holding open days, orientation or information nights. It’s a great idea if you can also take your child to informal visits to schools you might be interested in. This serves a double purpose of gauging how they react to the school and also helps to familiarise your child with the school.
What am I looking for?
You know your child and will therefore know and understand their likes, dislikes, triggers and what makes them feel comfortable and safe.
- Take note of the layout of the school, classrooms, tables etc. Many kids on the spectrum don’t cope well in open plan classrooms as they tend to be louder and with fewer close walls it feels like there are no set boundaries.
- Check out the lighting. Does fluorescent lighting effect your child? Is there ample natural light?
- How are the acoustics? Some schools and classrooms absorb sound whilst others can magnify it. Clearly this is best done with a classful of kids present. Warning: If you start singing opera in an empty classroom you’ve probably stepped into the helicopter mum zone!
- Take note of colours, smells, sounds and anything else you think may trigger your child. My Aspie has a thing about smells. He didn’t want to go into his go into his classroom because he couldn’t cope with the smell in there. This was eventually solved by several empty Eclipse chewy mints tins left open on his desk for him to smell. (I like having fresh breath, and I love that this is a smell he associates with me!)
Who do I talk to?
Make an appointment with the principal.
- Are there any initiatives in place for kids on the spectrum?
- How the school might deal with potential meltdowns.
- How are School Services Officers (SSO) utilised in the school/classroom?
- What are the school’s strategies for dealing with bullying?
Make a list of needs, questions or concerns you have. Every child on the spectrum has different care priorities and it’s best to find out early on if the school will deal with these in a way that works for you. Principals are mostly super friendly these days, but even as a grown up the thought of being in the principal’s office may have you forgetting what you were planning on asking.
It doesn’t hurt talk to other parents and families involved with the school. No you don’t have to feel like a stalker. If you don’t know any families attending the school you’re interested in, most parents will be happy to impart information on open days or even standing around the playground at the school fair.
- Have a friendly chat and get to know the general feeling the parents have towards the school.
- Is there a good home/school connection and communication?
- What are the routines like? Is there a lot of chopping and changing of the programs?
- Do they seem to have a lot of different teachers coming and going? This was a nightmare for my son’s first term in Prep with his classroom teacher gone so often. I wish I had known to ask this question.
Once you’ve settled on a school:
- Let your kinder know, they’re experts at on your child too and they do a great job of helping the future teacher understand how your child learns best. You don’t have to do this alone!
- Get involved in the orientation process, this is an opportunity to get to know your child’s potential teacher in action, SSO, the other kids in the classroom and maybe even some of the parents.
- Make a time to meet with your child’s teacher (if possible). Discuss your child’s needs and get a feel for how they operate, but also build a rapport. Change in routine can be tough for kids on the spectrum and you will both need each other!
Let the learning begin!
The best thing I did was set up a daily time-able complete with pictures to acclimatise my son to the routine of school. If I knew a special event or deviation from routine was coming up beforehand I could prepare him for it.
Mainstream students are dealing with the pressures of learning how to read, write and count. As a teacher I can tell you that during first term many kids are ready for a nap by the end of the day. Students on the spectrum are trying to cope with a cacophony of different routines, sights, sounds, smells and social rules. All of this is exhausting, so take away the unexpected where you can. Meltdowns may still happen at school. If the teacher is aware of the signs that your child is becoming overloaded, an area allocated for low sensory downtime can be really helpful. (This can even be a tepee or cushion alcove and a set of headphones.)
Holding it all together at school can cause explosions to happen at home. Make sure they have some downtime when they get home to just ‘switch off’. Then you can ask that age old question ‘So, what did your learn today?’ I wish you and your beautiful child a happy start to schooling!
What’s your best advice for a Mum with a child on the spectrum starting school?