by Dr. Judy Horrocks
As a parent it is difficult to send your special needs child off to a new teacher and possibly a new school. Many parents over the years asked me, as the principal of a school for children with autism, the best approach to make a smooth transition. I wish I had the perfect answer for you, but I can only give you some guidelines, the rest is based on your individual child.
The transition from early intervention to a school aged program is particularly hard for parents. Often parents have just become comfortable with the pre-school faculty and now they are very nervous about changing programs. Every parent has similar fears. “Will my child be okay? Will the adults understand my child’s needs? Will my child be happy and comfortable in the new school?” The less able the child can communicate the more pressure the parent feels.
The best solution is building good communication directly with the teacher. Often visiting the school early to meet the teacher can be comforting. Not for the child, for you! Children with autism can be very perceptive; the more anxiety you feel as a parent the more likely your child’s behavior may reflect that anxiety. If you can lower your own anxiety about this transition, then it is more likely to proceed more comfortably for your child.
If you plan to visit, schedule the appointment and do not expect the teacher to give you more than thirty minutes to an hour (and stick to it). Good teachers have lots of preparation to do and will appreciate your respecting their time. They also will understand your concerns. As a parent just having a picture of the classroom and teacher can be very comforting.
Many children with autism do have a difficult time with change. Change is change whether it is large or small. They often take the same amount of time to adjust regardless. We often think of this as over-reacting when the change is small, but we are not seeing the world through the child’s eyes. Any change is hard, but children can adjust if the adults remain calm and in control. Do not offer the child lots of choices; they really don’t know what will make them feel better!
Picture yourself in an airplane. You look out the window and the wing is on fire. Would you like to hear the voice of the pilot come over the intercom offering you choices of what to do? In high anxiety situations, we would like the pilot’s voice to be calm, clear and tell us what to do! This is true for everyone including children with autism. You are their pilot, be calm and take control. Often giving the student familiar routines can really lower their anxiety. Be sure to start the day using familiar routines as much as possible.
I am often asked if providing multiple visits to the school to allow the child to get used to the building is helpful. I usually did not recommend this type of slow transition. First, as I stated earlier, change is change and multiple visits that are each slightly different just creates more change not less. The teacher establishing a set routine on the first day to be followed for the rest of the week is far more stress reducing.
At any age, children with autism are not good at communicating well, particularly to new people. Parents always know their children best and can be great sources of information for teachers. Just don’t overwhelm the teacher with too much information. The teacher will be best served by the following information:
- What is reinforcing to your child? Often sending a favorite toy or book for the teacher to use on the first day is a wonderful idea. It creates a bridge from home to the classroom. (Just don’t send anything that would create havoc if accidently left at school.)
- How do you comfort your child when they are upset? The first day of school will be difficult and your child is likely to be upset at arrival. Giving the teacher suggestions to comfort your child will help everyone have a better transition. If your child would not accept a hug from a stranger, what else would you suggest? Do they have a special book or puzzle that may be calming? Supply any materials.
- Does your child have eating issues? Lunch and snack times can be either times of stress or pleasure for children with autism, let the teacher know what to expect.
- Describe any feature or routine from the previous classroom. For example, if they followed an individual visual schedule, what did it look like? (if possible send it in.) Describe any reinforcement system used.
- If your child used a communication system, send it to school! If you do not have it, describe it in detail.
After school, you will want to know every detail about the day. Do not expect a complete accounting from the teacher. They will have multiple parents all wanting details and it is impossible for them to give every parent a full accounting of the entire day. Ask for a note or email with a general description of your child’s day, if you want any specific information, ask for it directly.
Most children with autism will have difficulty describing the day, let if come out slowly over the course of the evening. Do not try to interrogate them as soon as they arrive. You will only increase their anxiety and you will probably not get the information you are seeking anyway. It is more important to focus on your child’s comfort now then detailed information.
Working in a school for children with autism, I always found it amazing how quickly most of the students adjusted to their new classrooms. By the second day, as the classroom routines were established, the students relaxed and the new school year had begun!