When your child is ready for school, expect exciting new opportunities and challenges. The right education plan can help your child reach his or her full potential. But school is not just about learning. Just like his or her peers, your child is navigating friendships and social situations.
Follow this 8-step checklist to help your child succeed during the elementary school years.
Step 1: Look for Support at School
Many kids with autism spectrum disorder are diagnosed by age 3 and receive early intervention services. When they turn 3, they're eligible for additional services at their local school district with the help of an individualized education program (IEP).
The IEP may include therapy for speech/language, behavior, or sensory concerns. In school, kids might get extra support through a classroom aide or during a "lunch bunch" or social skills group.
Parents meet with an IEP team to determine a child's needs. While you can't insist on certain services, you can appeal the IEP if you feel that the plan doesn't meet your child's needs. The IEP is reviewed and updated each year, but you can ask for updates before that to make sure your child is meeting goals.
Not all kids with autism need an IEP. Those who do not qualify for an IEP can get educational assistance through a 504 education plan, which provides for accommodations in a regular classroom that improve a child's learning experience.
Step 2: Get Tech Savvy
Technology can help kids with autism improve verbal skills, social skills, and behavior. Through the use of educational apps and computer games and programs, kids can increase their focus, get rewarded for good behavior, learn new skills, and have fun doing it. Some devices (called "assistive devices") can even vocalize kids' thoughts if they have trouble speaking.
Ask your child's doctor or speech or behavioral therapist for suggestions on what kinds of apps or other media can help your child. Many games help to reinforce the skills that kids are already learning in the classroom or during therapy sessions.
Step 3: Plan Playdates and Social Time
It's important for kids with autism to socialize with their peers, even if sometimes it can be challenging for them. Playdates and other activities are some much-needed chances to practice social skills and make new friends. Those who are struggling can sign up for a social skills group, which helps with things like introducing yourself, talking to others, reading social cues, and more.
When helping your child choose a playmate, look for someone who shares the same interests. Pre-plan the activities (like going to a park, playground, or another activity you know your child will enjoy), and avoid places with too much noise and stimulation if you think it will overwhelm your child. Let your child know what to expect ahead of time. Consider using a visual schedule with pictures or create social stories to help "tell ahead" what will happen during a playdate.
Step 4: Get Kids Moving
Physical activity is also great for kids with autism — it can help improve their fitness, coordination, strength, and body awareness. Regular physical activity can help prevent childhood obesity. Exercise may also help decrease repetitive, self-stimulating behaviors and improve attention.
Many sports programs, such as Special Olympics, Little League Challenger Division, TOPSoccer and at the YMCA, can help your child to be physically active while also meeting new friends who have similar challenges. Karate, therapeutic horseback riding programs, and aquatic therapy are also great ways to keep kids active.
Step 5: Address Emotional Needs
At times your child may feel left out, left behind, or bullied. Kids with autism sometimes have trouble relating to others, and this can make them feel angry or sad.
Get help from a professional counselor if your child shows signs of depression, which include sadness, moodiness, or keeping to himself or herself. Signs of bullying include:
- not wanting to go to school
- decreased appetite
- trouble sleeping
- unexplained crying
If your child is being teased or bullied, speak with school administrators as soon as possible. At home, talk with your child about the experience and use role-play to discuss how to handle bullies and report problems to teachers, guidance counselors, or other trusted adults.
Step 6: Prepare for Puberty
As puberty approaches, your child will be dealing with new emotions that are a normal part of growing up. Talk with your doctor about what to expect as your child matures and how to handle it. Reassure your child that the changes that come with puberty are normal.
Teach your child the difference between public and private places when it comes to private behaviors like getting dressed or touching private parts. When girls get their periods they will need to learn how to change pads, while boys might need reassurance that wet dreams are normal.
Talk to your child about appropriate versus inappropriate touching, explaining that he or she should immediately tell you if someone crosses the line.
Step 7: Find Support
Dealing with the day-to-day challenges of parenting a child with autism can be overwhelming. Having a strong support network can help you power through even the most challenging days.
To connect with other parents who understand your situation, find a local support group or get involved with a local chapter of a national autism awareness group. If a local group isn't available, look for online support.
Step 8: Secure Your Child's Future
If you haven't written a will or set up a legal and financial framework for your child's future, it's not too late. Talk with an attorney who specializes in special needs law and a financial advisor to find the best way to manage your assets and prepare financially for your child's adulthood.
If you have already written a will, review it from time to time to make sure that the custodial plan you made when your child was younger is still the best option.