Around Australia over the next few weeks, thousands of children and their parents, begin the excitement of preparing for a new school year.
While most parents see the start of school as the beginning of ‘freedom’, for parents of a child with Autism, the long journey has just begun. In fact its a little like running a 13 year long marathon!! But as with all achievements in life, with some careful planning, the willingness to ask some tough questions and lots of patience and love parents can help their child navigate their school life. It helps to stay focused if you liken the challenge to training for a marathon.
1. Is my child really ready for this?
Most marathon runners will tell you that they ‘hit the wall’ about the 30k mark of a marathon or about three quarters of the way through the race… in school life that’s can be likened to about Year 8 or 9 where every adolescent issue heightens. In the early years of high school all children have issues to deal with- bullying/friends issues/homework and study expectations/pressure to try alcohol and drugs etc., and for a child with ASD those issues are exacerbated 10 fold.
So, instead of asking if your child is ready for school, the question really should be “How old will my child be when they are in high school”.
As your child’s brain develops, so does their ability to cope with challenges that arise and the older they are the better they are able to cope with many of the emotional and social challenges that arise during high school. Research has shown that boys do better starting school later than girls, and girls are better off finishing school as close to 18 years of age as possible.
This is a long race but by looking to the future you can actually give your child the best start possible by asking the tough questions first. As with any focus on success, always keep the end in mind. How do you want your child to cross the finish line?
2. Know your child and know your own expectations.
Any coach will tell you that in order to create success, you have to know your strengths and your limitations. In a marathon, it’s the ability to consistently monitor where you are and the ability to adapt to conditions.
Planning is the key to success in any endeavour, schooling for your child is just one of those. Each child reaches different benchmarks at different times, it doesn’t make one child right and the other wrong, it’s just that children reach different milestones at different times. So, as your child’s coach and when considering if your child is actually ready to start school you first need to ask some initial questions:
a. Does my child have the ability to sit in one spot for extended periods of time?
b. Does my child have the ability to follow directions?
c. Does my child find loud noises or constant noise frustrating?
d. Does my child find interaction with their peers easy?
e. Does my child tire easily and what happens when he is overtired?
f. Does my child get upset if things don’t go his way?
g. How does my child cope with stress?
Whilst all children are often taught strategies in the first few years of school, to expect an autistic child to grasp these in an environment that can be hot, noisy or in a room with many other children, is to expect trouble. Each of these issues needs to be considered in the context of school readiness and you need to be working on these issues, before your child starts school, not expecting them to magically happen when school starts.
3. Develop Partnerships
All successful athletes need a great team around them. People who know you, can encourage you, who know your strengths and weaknesses.
In my years of being involved in schools, both as a parent and a staff member, for the most part I have found teachers to be incredibly dedicated and genuinely caring about the children they have in their class. It’s not an easy job, in fact it is very difficult (and getting more so), however they are only human and they are certainly not mind readers.
Until we had a diagnosis for our son, the first few weeks of every year ALWAYS meant that I was called up to the school to have a ‘one on one’ meeting with each new teacher. It wasn’t until I had a diagnosis, that I could actually pinpoint the various strategies that I knew worked.
Following David’s diagnosis I created a School Report. Like a SWOT analysis that business people use in planning for their business, the School Report helped David’s teachers understand how he reacted in certain situations. It also helped me understand him a little more. I would re-visit the School Report each year and would make time with each new teacher to ensure they understood just what David’s needs, his challenges, his strengths and his weaknesses were each year, and that we were all on the same page when it came to ensuring just exactly what our expected outcomes were. The information then formed the basis of an IEP – Individualized Education Programme, that was updated and revised each year. The link to the School Report is here. Please feel free to download and adapt for your child.
4. Focus on Development not Academics
Most marathon runners don’t go out to win a race, rather they work to achieve their personal best – and each marathon gives them the opportunity to develop more skills.
Academics really is the last thing on the totem pole as far as outcomes for your Autistic child. Other than the basics of learning to read, to write and how to learn, most autistic children will figure out what they do and don’t need to learn very quickly.
When David was at school, teachers would get very concerned because he wouldn’t read. Now let me be very succinct about this. He wouldn’t read what THEY wanted him to read. If the reading was outside of his area of interest he just was not interested at all. But give him a book on Power Rangers, The Simpsons or any computer game magazine and he would read it cover to cover, not letting the book out of his sight and often not sleeping until he had finished each one. He was just not interested in what he was not interested in!
During our recent Federal Election, when David downloaded each political parties policies on Education, the Environment and the Refugee issues and read them all, was reminded of a conversation I had with David’s Year 9 teacher who was concerned that he would be held back in his reading because he wasn’t reading books that were ‘broad enough!’ The issue is this, an autistic child will be successful in life because they will be able to maintain focus in an area that interests them. Don’t get caught up on the ‘academic’ race, it really is not that essential to success. What is essential to success is that your child becomes a confident, capable person who has the ability to become very, very good in a particular area.
5. Ignore competitive, judgmental parents.
The greatest mistake any marathon runner can make is to try and run somebody else’s race, but competition from others often makes them forget their race plan.
Like it or not, schools are very competitive places – and some of the students are too !
Many parents derive their sense of their own self from how well their children do at a school. In my years involved in the education system it was often the parents standing outside classrooms or grouped in the car park who were the ones that were far more competitive than their children. They can be particularly harsh in their criticism of children they think have ‘problems’. Resist the temptation to be one of them or to even take any notice of them. Instead, look objectively and rationally at what achievements your child can master. Even if it is tying his shoe laces, sitting still for 30 minutes to write a story or making one new friend each year.
But it is important that you write those goals down, acknowledge the small wins and look rationally if benchmarks haven’t been achieved and create alternative solutions to those for the next year. Not all children are going to walk across the stage at awards nights. And one thing I do know for sure, is that many children who never win awards at school go on to be successful in life and the reverse is also true. Learn to celebrate the small wins and to stay focused on what is important for your child… even if you never ever see them walk across the stage!
6. Be adaptable in your expectations.
Not all training works perfectly every time. Sometimes runners have to contend with injury, illness or extreme weather conditions, which force them to rethink their plans. Success is learning to adapt to the conditions whilst maintaining focus on the end result.
Many children on the spectrum tire easily or have adverse reactions to heat, humidity, noise, or too much stimulus. There is absolutely nothing wrong with allowing your child to start the year on a part time basis – perhaps only going to school until lunchtime or even having one day off per week.
What is most important during this time is not the time they spend at school, but how they spend their time at school.
If your child is stressed by any of those factors listed above then they are not going to learn – they are simply going to become more stressed, which usually leads to an ‘issue’ arising. For their sake and for everyone else’s sake, giving your child ‘down’ time is far better than persisting with what is considered ‘normal’, and then dealing with the crisis afterwards. Keep your end goal in mind and your child’s well-being as your number one concern.
7. Embrace Difference
Not everybody who competes in a marathon does so to win, and if you watch a marathon race you will find all sorts of people of varying nationalities, body shapes and ages competing, all for very personal reasons. Some people (a small majority) just look like they were born to run, but most people do not, but it doesn’t stop them from competing!
For many children on the spectrum, there is a tendency to try to make them ‘fit in’. Thankfully, our children are different and in that difference they will find their own measure of success. As parents we need to help our children be comfortable in their own skin. Recognise that you are raising a child who may make a real difference in this world. As parents we all want our children to have friends and be happy, but for some children that is just not going to happen easily, and so we need to help them come to terms with that difference and help them adapt.
8. Choose your words carefully.
Marathon athletes are masters of the art of choosing the right words to create the right mindset – they have to, they can’t possibly enter a 42klm race without having their minds get their first. Many marathoners compete in races time after time after time, even though it often hurts like hell, theey are able to reframe the race itself to see the benefits, rather than focusing on the reality of it.
There is a tendency to tell your child about how ‘exciting’ school is going to be and ‘how many friends you are going to make’, and in the initial stages that may be true. But as time wears on, and the world changes, it is our autistic children who are often excluded or who find that school is not fun at all – but is really stressful. So, choose your words carefully. Don’t create expectations that may in the long run become disappointments. Share in the excitement of the first day of school, but couch in words that are reasonable.
Instead of using words such as ‘You will have so much fun”, instead choose word such as “You will learn so many new things”, “Your teacher can help you learn how to write and to read”, “At school you learn reading and writing and how to make new things”
Instead of saying “You will make so many new friends”, instead “You will get to meet lots of new kids your age”
Instead of saying“You get to play in the playground or sandpit”…instead “At morning break and lunchtimes, after you have eaten your lunch, you can play in the playground… but your teacher will tell you what you can play on, so you have to listen to her/him.”
Be very specific in the words that you choose, as you know already, your autistic child will take every word you use quite literally.
9. Give your child plenty of time to get used to wearing strange shoes!
Any marathon runner will tell you that the choice of footwear, running gear etc., is critical in being able to finish a race that is already challenging. There is nothing worse than blisters or chaffing shorts to make an already difficult event even more so.
Many Autistic children are super sensitive to heat, humidity, fabrics etc., so it is very important that you are thinking ahead of time. Many schools insist that children wear socks and closed in shoes. So ensure that your child is able to ‘wear the shoes in’, and wears them around the house and outside to get used to the weight and the feel of the shoes and their school uniform. Talk to your child’s principal about uniform expectations. If your child goes to school in a hot climate, many schools allow their young students to wear sandals in the first few weeks, or to take their shoes off when playing in the sandpit. But it is important that you are well aware of uniform expectations and that your child is aware of them also. Know when sports days or swimming days are scheduled. Ensure that your child knows the routine, what time, what happens, where you put your towel when its wet etc., it may solve many a heated argument or discussion in the future.
10. Trust your own Wisdom and intuition
Listen to your heart and your head. You are your child’s greatest supporter and their greatest advocate and sometimes all the intentions, plans, aspirations and goals don’t work. It is up to you to trust your intuition and inner wisdom in helping your child, and those around them, experience success.
An autistic child is like a weather barometer, if there is pressure or stress in the classroom, they will react! Learn to watch out for the stress signals and most importantly learn to be adaptable. Although the education system is just that – a system – unfortunately it is a ‘one size fits all’ system. Be courageous and trust in your own intuition. If something isn’t working, be willing to go back to the drawing board and rethink where you are heading.
Any marathon runner will tell you that there are some days where everything comes together and all the pain is forgotten, but there will also be some days when you feel like you are climbing the biggest hill you have ever seen. As the day looms for your autistic child to commence school, begin with the end in mind. Know that some days will be tough and there will be other days that you will feel like you could run for hours….. and some days when you feel both!