Caring for those in Need

Elijah’s Mom Shares Back to School Prep for Children with ASD

In July, I started to prepare for my son to go back to school. There are things to consider when any child is going back to school, for a child with a diagnosis of autism, the preparation looks a little different. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by deficits mainly in the areas of social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

BY Renee C. Williams, M.S. Ed. | August 2023 | Category: Schools, Camps & Residences

Elijah’s Mom Shares Back to School Prep for Children with ASD

Because my son will be starting a new school in the fall, there is an added layer of concern that not only he be prepared to start a new school in the Fall, but in addition, the new school staff understands my son’s strengths and use them to help him transition into his new environment. Preparing my son to go back to school is as much about getting him ready, as it is about getting the school ready for him.
Currently, my son is learning to communicate using a high tech alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) device, also known as a speech generated device (SGD). These devices can be as high tech as a voice output computer or as low tech as a letter board. My son has some expressive verbal communication, so it is sometimes more difficult for him to produce his words. Part of my preparing my son to go back to school is making sure his voice will be heard in whatever modality he chooses to use, in the upcoming school year. To help prepare him for school, I have been taking AAC training courses throughout the summer, that teach me what it means to be his reliable communication partner. To ensure he transitions well back to school in the Fall, the implementation of the AAC device with a reliable communication partner at school will be imperative. According to the National Joint Committee for the Communications Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities (NJC), all people with a disability have a right to interact socially, maintain social closeness, and build relationships. Schools supporting children with communication deficits must understand and be intentional about ensuring a child access intervention and supports, that improve a child’s communication.

Another way that I am preparing my son to go back to school is through the use of visual aids. I use a visual schedule on an app, and at home on the wall, that helps him know what will be happening throughout his day. This helps him prepare for school because he will understand that throughout the day there are expectations of him to do work at times, and then at other times he can play and enjoy leisure activities. Keeping this up throughout the summer can be difficult because the days may not be predictable, with holidays and vacations. However, keeping some consistency of a visual aid to prepare him for what activities will be upcoming or happening throughout the day, is the best way to keep him learning throughout the summer, in a way that will resemble school in the fall. It is best to keep my son’s schedule as routine as possible, for him be regulated and enjoy the daily activities. This sense of structure is even more important with non-preferred tasks, because it gives him a sense that these non-preferred tasks, such as combing his hair, have a beginning and an end time. This helps greatly with preparing him to go back to school, as these daily tasks will continue when school starts in September.
A major part of a typical development at the elementary school age is learning from their peers. It is important that my son has opportunities throughout the summer to socialize with peer models. Throughout the summer, I facilitate playtime with my son’s older brother who is 11. I encourage them to play together outside at the park, do puzzles/games, and various sensory activities, such as blowing and popping bubbles. I also encourage their social interaction during mealtime. This engagement with a peer is critical for his success in the new school year, helping build his confidence and motivation to interact with his peers. With a child diagnosed with ASD and communication deficits, it can be difficult for the child to know how to begin to play with their peers. In addition to being able to facilitate this intentional interaction with his brother, I am also grateful that my son goes to an extended school year (ESY), for a month during the summer, where he gets to continue to attend school with his peers. This program is great because it helps prevent a regression of learned skills and allows him to spend more time with classmates and peers.
Getting to Know You  :  Aiding Learning and Emotional Regulation
In order to help the school staff to get to know my son, I put together a profile of my child that will help the school engage with him in a way that is optimal for his learning and emotional regulation. Some of the helpful information I include in my son’s profile is:

  • The stimuli that make him feel overwhelmed in an environment.
  • The ways to help his body feel calm or regulated, so he can attend and learn.
  • Things he does, to self-regulate his emotions or when he is feeling anxious.
  • Strategies that help him with transitions between activities.
  • Preferred leisure activities
  • Picture cards for classroom and on the device that help him advocate for himself with statements such as “I need a break.”
  • His strengths such as: ability to read at a 3rd grade level and recognize over 150 sight words.
  • His likes and dislikes related to activities and foods.
  • Things that help him understand communication better – visual cues, processing time, AAC device.
  • His level of expressive and receptive communication.
  • Things to do to help him feel better when he may become sad or frustrated.
  • Things that make him smile, such as tickles.
  • A task analysis (visual schedule) to help him plan for certain activities, such as washing his hands or going to the bathroom

Finding what my son enjoys doing has helped us as a family find activities that the whole family can enjoy. I am learning to do things differently and see the world differently and see it from my son’s perspective. It has opened my family and me to see the world in a new way. Our journey focuses on the strengths our son has and his likes, to help him learn and engage with us and the world around him. My hope is that by doing this we help prepare him to go back to school, knowing he is loved and appreciated for who he is. I hope this message encourages anyone who has a child with ASD or who knows someone with ASD, to pay attention to their child’s behaviors and abilities. Even if your child is considered nonverbal, behaviors are your child’s communication. Use these behaviors to empower you to help your child find a meaningful connection. Everyone wants to feel seen and heard. Our journey is to make sure we provide that for our children at home, school, and in our community.
American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Neurodevelopmental disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed., text rev.).
Beukelman D, Light J. (2020). Augmentative & Alternative Communication: Supporting Children and Adults with Complex Communication Needs (5th ed.)
Hume, K., Steinbrenner, J.R., Odom, S.L., Morin, K.L., Nowell, S.W., Tomaszewski, B., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N.S., Yücesoy-Özkan S, Savage, M.N. Evidence-Based Practices for Children, Youth, and Young Adults with Autism: Third Generation Review. J Autism Dev Disord. (2021); 51(11):4013-4032. doi: 10.1007/s10803-020-04844-2. Epub 2021 Jan 15. Erratum in: J Autism Dev Disord. 2023 Jan;53(1):514. PMID: 33449225; PMCID: PMC8510990.
National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons With Severe Disabilities. Guidelines for meeting the communication needs of persons with severe disabilities. American Speech and Hearing Association. 1992; 34:1–8. 
Renee C. Williams, M.S. Ed. is a N.J. based Client Relations Manager at a Chemical Process Parts Manufacturer. She recently graduated from Monmouth University with a Master of Science in Education with a concentration in Autism and Applied Behavioral Analysis. She serves as a Community Autism Research Ambassador for Family Voices. She is also the inventor of a patented shoe accessory. Her primary interests are being the best advocate for her boys and being a researcher who helps empower educators to work in the best interest of children of all abilities. 

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