Visualize one parent (me) with four boys. Place them in a retail store with all the hustle & bustle of back-to-school shopping. You can actually put a period after that but let’s add autism. Now you have fireworks blended together with an erupting volcano. That’s not an image. That’s a a moment in time you would like to start over differently. Transitioning back to school can be this chaotic if you don’t prepare. However the finest preparations can also fall through the unexpected cracks in the floor. But you do your best to equip your child for saying good-bye to summer and hello to new routines, new teachers, new students, new setup and for some….a new environment.
I took my sons shopping for school supplies. I had a plan of how we were going to navigate through this trip. This had not been the first time I had taken all of the boys shopping. Each year we barely make it to the car. So this year, I huddled up with my boys to give them my plan of action. That plan was quickly hit out of the ballpark the moment we stepped foot into the retail store. I’m not sure if I thought this year would be different from all the rest but waves of school supply list holders overwhelmed us all. Bright lights, crowds & noise sent Callie on a whirlwind of scripting to the top of his lungs and crying in between each line. My arm, I had hoped, would be a relief mechanism but hope faded when the squeezes became tighter with every aisle change. Comfort was nowhere in sight and Callie was becoming more and more agitated. Stares & whispers followed our every move. My stress level was reaching its peak as well, and I wanted to tap my heels and disappear with my boys in hand before the final seconds – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….meltdown…center stage. My headache clutched my strength and my ability to think was a wash. It didn’t help much that my two little ones wanted to get their own supplies, picking up things they thought were necessary, yet using no list to verify. My oldest was helping to grab things on Callie’s list but ran into more shortages than stock. Red & yellow folders but no blue & green. #2 pencils but not the pre-sharpened ones. College ruled notebook paper but no wide ruled. Graph paper – OUT! Dividers with pockets – OUT! Highlighter packs with green ones – OUT! Elmer’s 4 oz glue – OUT! Crayola Classic Markers – OUT! Started wondering what the point of shopping was if everything was OUT! And we hadn’t even gotten to what my youngest ones & oldest needed. Feeling faint was an understatement. If this was the topsy-turvy we were experiencing now, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the first week…..no, the first day of school would be like, especially for Callie.
To me, although shopping for clothes & school supplies can be a hectic venture, it’s molecular compared to dropping your kid off at a school with a teacher you’ve met only once at Meet The Teacher Night or Orientation. For parents who have children with autism or any kind of special needs, you’re on pins & needles. And the less your child is familiar with his place of learning, the more uneasy you both feel.
Transitioning is something ending or beginning….something preferred or not preferred. Many people with autism are driven by routine and being comfortable. Transitions often bring the opposite. Uncertainty & anxiety are its roommates. Change is inevitable and even though planning doesn’t prepare you for the unforeseen, planning accordingly can bring some ease. Communication with your child is essential. Accentuate the positive – Change could be fun. Making new friends can be exciting. The more information given, the more a child with autism feels comfortable enough to adjust. Visiting the school ahead of time has been Callie’s security blanket. Whether the school is new or not, Callie’s senses are broaden beforehand. One day he gets the embrace of quiet and the next, the taste of buzz, clamor & fanfare. The experience allows his climate to start settling in. At these visits, meet the teachers and the entire educational team who will be involved with your child. I am a stickler on making sure the team is aware of Callie’s goals & the accommodations that are in place….strengths are identified, used & praised, and weaknesses are noted, not hammered and discussions are had to implement ways to improve. Fictional books about a child’s first day of school are read and social stories with Callie as the main character are created to act out on paper “going back to school.” Included in his story are teachers’ names, classes, list of his likes & dislikes. This not only prepares him for school but repeating the story is also a reminder of everything & everyone in his school day. And finally schedules are life savers. They break down what your child can expect during the day & week. Make sure the schedules are concrete & understandable. These daily calendars lessens meltdowns and assures the child that they have a grasp on their day. This does not mean that a fire drill won’t interrupt their computer class or a standardized test won’t change their routine or the bad weather won’t cause recess to end early. Anything can happen but teach the staff your child’s triggers and have an alternate angle that will help minimize or prevent a meltdown.
The above are suggestions only…..things that have worked for Callie. It’s not fireproof. Sometimes the plans, the back-ups & the new & improved fail. But you try until something works. Always expect the best & hope for more. Watching your child with autism or special needs travel the many roads of modification, development, shifting & adjustment is a weight on your heart that you will always carry but watching them learn, grow & evolve tends to outweigh it all.
Thanks for listening,