While Ohio’s school closure came like a curve ball at most school-age children and their families, autistic youngsters have fiercely felt the jolt. Children with developmental disabilities thrive on the routines and “sameness” school days deliver, says Em Ellis, LSW, a behavior specialist for Summit Academy Community School – Dayton. So, when typical days filled with bells ringing between classes and familiar young faces lighting up classrooms went without warning, many students and families were left scrambling for direction.
Autistic children and their parents may still be fretting and frustrated with unstructured days at home. Don’t despair, says Ellis, the parent of two autistic children. She offers six tips for making the most of school days at home for youngsters with autism.
- Create predictability
“Children want to have that schedule again, a sense of what is going on,” says Ellis. She acknowledges that while planning out a minute-by-minute schedule may be unrealistic for many parents, they can create a basic routine. That may mean breakfast, language arts and science in the morning followed by lunch and then math. Next, take a brain break – maybe paired with a crunchy snack or a brief retreat in front of the television — and check in with Google classroom to wrap up the afternoon.
Start by creating a rough schedule outline and support that schedule with verbal and visual reinforcements. For instance, give your child friendly verbal warnings before transitioning from one activity to the next, jot down assignment due dates on sticky notes, create to-do lists, and use visual timers such as https://apps.apple.com/us/app/visual-timer/id1392401197 throughout the course of the day.
- Provide sensory experiences
“Many autistic individuals need self-stimulation to regulate their emotions, calm their bodies or focus on schoolwork,” says Ellis, who defines this as stimming. “We all do it in different ways.”
Do you bite your nails, tap your foot in quiet rhythm or repeatedly click your pen? These are all different forms of stimming. Autistic children may spin in circles, rock back and forth, jump a lot, listen to the same song over and over or pace back and forth.
“Let them stim. They are seeking sensory input,” says Ellis, who adds that the extra time parents have with their children may help them cue in on their youngsters’ sensory preferences. Ellis points to a personal example, describing how her son loves to jump and the sensation it brings to his feet. Ellis answered the call with a trampoline.
Ask your children what their bodies need. Is there too much noise? Perhaps their ears need quiet. Maybe their hands need something to fidget with. Simple fixes go a long way toward helping children along academically, socially and emotionally, says Ellis. “If autistic kids are having a hard time focusing, chances are they need more sensory input. Even if kids can regulate their emotions, sensory input can be calming and help students tremendously,” she says.
- Tell a social story
Times are difficult for everyone to wrap their heads around. Through social stories, confusing and unconventional circumstances caused by the pandemic will begin to fall in place for little ones, Ellis says. For instance, elementary school children want to know why they cannot attend school. Offer a social story to answer the “whys” in a calm and assuring manner. Examples of social stories to help children cope through the current school closing such as I Miss My Friends at School Social Narrative and Why Can’t I Go to School Social Narrative are available for free from the Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Ellis adds that social stories often serve as conversation starters and open up opportunities for parents to address their children’s concerns.
- Paint a picture worth a thousand words
Children with autism tend to be visual learners, according to Ellis. If your child is struggling with a science assignment, support the lesson concepts with pictures. For instance, explain the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly with pictures of the pupa, chrysalis and the winged beauty that emerges at the end of the process. “A visual reference can make something click,” says Ellis, who adds that she incorporates images into all of her students’ teachable moments.
- Offer choices
Temper meltdowns and moments of frustration by giving your child choices.
“The goal is learning, not compliance, especially when so much is outside of their control,” says Ellis. “We all want a sense of control.”
Allowing children to make decisions teaches them independence.
“Ask your child if she wants a three-minute break or a five-minute break,” suggests Ellis, adding that giving children the choice to decide between the two time frames will make the break all the better for them.
As a final piece of advice, Ellis recommends that parents give their children options with acceptable boundaries. She offers an example: Do you want to do your math or science assignment first?
- Embrace your child’s differences
“Embrace their uniqueness. An autistic brain is different. An autistic child may look at things differently, and that’s OK,” says Ellis.
What your child needs in order to cope may be different from their siblings’ needs or your own. If your child becomes frustrated, look for what your child naturally seeks more of or tends to avoid and need less of, suggests Ellis.
In the grand scheme of things, remember that we’re in a pandemic. School and life are not business-as-usual. Ellis recommends that parents take it easy on themselves and their children and focus on what is most important.
As a behavior specialist, Ellis says her main concern right now is children’s mental health.
“We want students to learn academically, but if we’re not focusing on mental health, they will not be able to be successful. If you and your kid are working on a school project and the biggest thing they get out of it is to recognize when they need a break, it’s a big win,” says Ellis.
Ellis suggests that parents put aside worries about their children falling behind, at least for the time being.
“We’re all in a global crisis, in survival mode,” she says. “Mental health matters.”
Ellis offers tips and advice to parents of autistic children through her blog: facebook.com/TransparentMeBlogging/ . For sensory understanding and resources, Ellis uses sensory coach Wendy Bertagnole.