School return to prove particularly challenging for children with autism

Autism support charity As I Am has produced a useful booklet – Bridge Back to School – to help with the transition

“Parents of autistic children worry that their children won’t catch up and that they will spend a lot of time trying to get back to where they were at and that they won’t meet their developmental milestones,” says Adam Harris, CEO of As I Am.

“Parents of autistic children worry that their children won’t catch up and that they will spend a lot of time trying to get back to where they were at and that they won’t meet their developmental milestones,” says Adam Harris, CEO of As I Am.

 

Returning to school after the extended break due to the Covid-19 pandemic will be challenging for all students, but many children with autism will need special attention so they don’t become overwhelmed by changes to the school environment.

“It has been so long since children with autism were in school that they will have to re-establish relationships. This will need to happen in a structured way with lots of support,” says Adam Harris, CEO of the Autism support charity, As I Am.

Harris says the Covid-19 pandemic has been incredibly difficult for some young people with autism while others found the lockdown more manageable.

“Some young people with autism found the concept of Covid-19 very stressful and scary and having to try to follow rigid rules. Some people haven’t left their homes because of their anxieties and fears [around Covid-19]. They also missed their educational supports and found it difficult to self-regulate at home which is why the summer provision [extra educational classes for children with autism and other special needs] was so important,” he explains.

However, Harris says there is another cohort of young people with autism who found the lockdown less stressful because life was at a slower pace and they didn’t have to negotiate daily interactions with different people. However, both groups will need help adapting to new protocols and rules as schools re-open.

To help this transition back to school, As I Am has produced a comprehensive autism-friendly learning resource entitled, Bridge Back to School with Mary Immaculate College of Education in Limerick.

The booklet, which is available free in SuperValu stores throughout Ireland, provides tips on how to help students with autism get ready for school, manage their time and keep organised throughout the day. It also includes sections for the young person to fill out themselves to help them focus on the new academic year.

So, for example, it gives the school returnees a chance to write down their worries and how they would deal with them and fill out a student profile about things they like, don’t like, what they are good at and how people can help them.

It also prompts students to keep up with exercise and activities throughout the summer so that they are fit and healthy for the beginning of the school year. Activities such as the self-esteem scrapbook and strengths cards helps build up the students’ resilience in these extraordinary times.

“The aim of the document is to give parents, teachers and special needs assistants practical activities to support students with autism so that they can reconnect with their activities and develop their skills,” explains Harris.

Visual changes

Iseult Ring is a secondary school teacher doing summer provision with a student with autism preparing to go into Leaving Certificate class in September.

“We’re reading a book, learning how to play chess and having guitar lessons, but we’re also going for socially distanced walks to stay healthy and we do most of our work outside,” explains Ring. She says that the Bridge Back to School is a useful resource because students can bring the sections they fill out into school when they return.

Harris says families and schools will need to prepare young people with autism for any changes to the school environment. These will include visual changes as well as behavioural changes required by students. So, there will be a need to explain to them how there will be posters explaining signs and symptoms of Covid-19 and correct hand-washing techniques and respiratory hygiene.

This preparation can be done with pictures/virtual tours of the school or by allowing the student to visit the school for an hour or so before it reopens for all students. Preparation will be particularly important for children/teenagers with autism making the transition from pre-school to primary school and from primary school to secondary school.

Fiona, a parent of a child with autism, has concerns.

“I am looking forward to my son having more routine and structure during the week, meeting his friends and socialising again. I am worried that it will take him much longer to settle back to school after being away so long and I am worried he will have regressed,” she says.

Shane, a nine-year-old boy with autism, also has mixed feelings.

“I like the thought of going back to school for the fun stuff and to gain more knowledge, learn more. But, I find it weird thinking of going back to meet friends and teachers I haven’t seen for what feels like 10 months. I’m not looking forward to where I just have to do what I’m told and what everyone else is doing. It will be alike blah, blah, blah all over again,” he says.

Lenore Good, a mother of six children, four of whom are on the autism spectrum says t her children have reacted differently to the lockdown.

“My nine-year-old girl loves reading and facts and she and I and my 12-year-old found it easier to be at home but my three-year-old just wanted to get out.”

Personal space

Good, who writes a blog about the family’s autism journey, Out in the Sticks with Six, says teachers play a huge role in the lives of families.

“Having the right teacher with the right approach makes a huge difference. Teachers often don’t realise that they affect people’s days, way more than the hours the children are in school.”

Adam Harris.
Adam Harris.

Harris says it is important that the students have time to process the changes and know what to expect.

“We will need kindness and understanding around social distancing which may be hard to maintain as not every autistic person has a good concept of personal space and an awareness of their body in space.”

He also says that it’s important that the Government guidelines on mask-wearing exempt people who can’t wear face masks due to sensory issues. The AsIAm website includes a letter which autistic people can carry to explain if and why they are not wearing a face mask.

Overall, Harris believes it is important to have a positive approach to returning to education. “Parents of autistic children worry that their children won’t catch up and that they will spend a lot of time trying to get back to where they were at and that they won’t meet their developmental milestones. But, there are many brilliant teachers and special needs assistants out there who will take a child-centred approach to learning.”

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