Ahhh… summer is coming to a close and the kids are going back to school. Brittany is now a senior and applying to colleges, Ethan is now a 4th grader, growing like a weed and… the house is quiet during the day again.
The beginning of a new school year is always stressful. From going to battle for school supplies at the store, to getting new clothes, shoes, and haircuts, everything is busy and tends to be stressful for every parent. On top of all the normal stresses, with kids like Ethan the beginning of a new school year is always extra stressful.
Ethan has most of the behaviors and social limitations that come with autism. He is minimally verbal, he “flaps” his hands, rocks back and forth when sitting or standing, he makes random sounds, repeats things that you say to him (echolalia) and will sometimes scream or squeal for no apparent reason.
Our concerns, fear, and stress have decreased over the years though, not because Ethan is in a special education program, private school that specializes in working with kids with autism, or a “life skills” classroom, but because we have an awesome school support system.
You see, we have kept Ethan in a regular classroom with “typical” kids and “regular” teachers. We feel/hope that having him work through his day by observing and working with typical kids will help him develop better social skills. Fortunately we have an awesome team of educators and support staff at Ethan’s school and a great autism support system in our school district, Hamilton Southeastern School District in Fishers, Indiana.
In addition to having “resource aides” support him throughout the day by helping him stay focused on tasks and navigate through his day, there some specific strategies that we have used at the beginning of each school year to help things go smoother for him.
1) We arrange a time with Ethan’s new teacher and resource teacher a couple of days before school starts to allow Ethan to meet his new teacher and spend some time exploring his new classroom so that he isn’t stressed by a new environment on the first day while everything is crazy with typical new school stuff.
During this visit with his new teacher and resource teacher we discuss Ethan’s needs, mannerisms and issues, in addition to any unique things that they need to watch out for specifically. One example is the fact that Ethan doesn’t understand what is socially acceptable… like how he doesn’t understand skirts… Basically, if Ethan is near a female of any age who is wearing a skirt, he tries to look up the skirt.
We don’t believe that there is anything sexual associated with this, but simply that he is curious about where the shorts/pants are and what makes skirts move in the wind or when the girl/woman moves. This is definitely not socially acceptable and everyone that supports him needs to be aware of it and prevent it as well as making sure that it is addressed directly with him at the time to reinforce that it is not acceptable behavior.
2) We meet with the school’s entire primary support team. This includes the resource teacher, his classroom teacher, school counselor, principal and school therapists who work with him throughout each week. During this meeting we discuss his progress and changes during the summer, and we make sure the team knows that we want to work with them and that we trust their expertise.
Most importantly (or effectively?) we tell them directly that we understand Ethan is not the center of all the school’s resources. Just so that it is clear, we make sure that they understand that we know and accept that Ethan is not the only kid in the school and we know there are additional requirements for their resources and attention. We make sure that they understand that we trust, and want to leverage, their expertise in their specific areas and that we are all part of a team whose common goal is to help Ethan be successful.
These efforts help us establish an effective line of communication but has helped make them want to work with us on how to address any issues, concerns, therapies or education supports. We communicate via e-mail, notes or phone calls to keep up on what they are working on with him and this helps us maintain continuity with their efforts at school. Each time we have done this we can feel the relief in the room and a productive discussion and exchange of ideas not only continues for the rest of the meeting but the rest of the year.
3) Hamilton Southeastern School District has an Autism Resource Team (ART) composed of teachers and support staff who are trained specifically to help teachers and staff throughout the district develop strategies to overcome issues and challenges for kids with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
One of the things the ART team also does on request by parents, is a program to help Ethan’s classmates understand that not only is Ethan different, but that everyone is different. Typically, during the second week of school after things have settled down in the class and the kids have started picking up on the fact that Ethan is different, they join the class and start by reading a book about something that is different than the rest of the group. Once the group understands the they are all unique and that they all have different strengths and weaknesses, then they accept him.
In the past the story has been about an animal like a zebra that has spots instead of stripes. After reading the story to the class, they have the kids color a handout. After the kids are done coloring, they show some of the pictures to the whole class and discuss them so they can see that everyone did something different with their picture.
Once the kids understand that everyone does things differently, the ART team discusses examples about how people are different, including some of Ethan’s behaviors. As they go through this the kids start to realize that even though Ethan is different he has strengths, like being a whiz at math and spelling.
The team doesn’t just talk about his strengths, they discuss his mannerisms and behaviors and include the kids in a discussion about how they can respond to them, including ways they can help discourage unacceptable behaviors, except the skirt thing, we keep that one to the teachers and staff…
By addressing Ethan’s differences and mannerisms head on at the beginning of each year, we take away the stigma and wondering about his differences. Because of this, each year the kids not only accept him but frequently try to include him in what they are doing. In some cases they sort of adopt him and try to help or take care of him like a beloved little brother.
Using these strategies, we have had a great experience with school so far. Instead of fearing the beginning of each new school year, we have been excited for what it brings for Ethan and the growth that we will see in him during the year. The only downside is trying to get him to focus on his homework… but that’s typical…