I have 2 sons who are transitioning to Middle School. This an exciting and anxiety provoking time for me as a parent. If that is the case for me, I’m sure my boys are also anxiously anticipating the transition. The following tips and suggestions are things that I find to be helpful and informative as a parent to both an amazing child with Autism and an amazing neurotypical child. Did I say my sons are AMAZING!?
Below are 10 tips on helping a child with Autism transition to Middle School. Followed by general suggestions for preparing the student, the parent, and the academic support team for the transition:
- School Culture and leadership
- Some of the above are outside of the parents control but not beyond our influence. The school culture and leadership style are a few of these things. Whether it’s anti-bullying, Autism education, or scheduling, the principal and vice-principal will inform how well the staff/teachers will follow these initiatives as well as the general culture toward inclusion. If the principal does not understand, or lacks education on, Autism it will make it that much more difficult to establish and maintain a school culture that is educated and understanding of students with Autism. On the other hand, if the principal understands Autism they can better facilitate a school culture that is not just tolerant but welcoming of students with Autism and other special needs.
- Tailoring academic subjects according to ability not disability
- One things that tends to be done in schools all too regularly (in my opinion) is placement of students in class “levels” according to their disability rather than their ability. Autistic students just like any other student can be stronger in some subjects than others. But the typical response to the diverse skill level is to put the child on the level of their lowest skill so that learning won’t be “too challenging” for them.
- Knowledgeable case management
- The case manager is the one that is responsible for your child’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) on the school’s end. It is imperative they be knowledgeable of Autism in order for the IEP to be applicable. If they are not than the IEP will not necessarily meet the needs of your student academically or socially. The case manager also serves as the liaison or “bridge educator” between the Autism student and general education teacher. They can be essential to making it easier for the teacher to teach and the Autistic student to adapt to general education.
- Attention to Program Modification and Specially Designed Instructions
- An IEP is very important to your child’s academic success but SDI (Specially Designed Instructions) are three more important letters to include in your vocabulary. Specially Designed Instructions are the adaptations or resources specific to your student, that are included in the IEP such as: alternative environments for testing, timing increases, homework assignments adapted to make workload more manageable, etc. Having the appropriate SDI can mean greater understanding and ultimately more success in a general education setting.
Now would be a good time to mention, of course we hope that all teachers would read the IEP in an effort to familiarize themselves with your student. But this is Middle School. This means several different classes, different teachers with different teaching styles and they may not see the SDI if they don’t read the IEP.
It would be a good idea for you to shoot the teacher a quick email summarizing your child’s strengths and weaknesses, SDI’s, and any other special information you think is important, to share about your child. I always say “It is better to lead with your strengths rather than letting others discover your deficiencies”. Provide the teacher with a “cheat sheet” to understanding your student.
- Think technology
When my son was in 3rd grade we added the computer lab on his school’s campus to his list of SDI’s where he could go daily and use a software program that helped him with writing, sentence completion, comprehension and grammar. He was already strong in English but writing was an issue due to difficulties with fine motor skills. He responded to the program brilliantly and now is much better at writing and taking notes.
- Positive Behavioral Support
- Most children with Autism have certain sensory sensitivities that can interrupt their learning experience throughout the day. Unlike elementary school where there is only one classroom, one teacher and all the same surroundings every day, middle school is different teachers, different classes and different environments throughout the day making it more difficult to adapt for a student with autism.
- Bullying has been an issue in schools for some time, especially for children with special needs. Autistic children tend to struggle socially on many different levels. It is important to assess the culture of the school when it comes to bullying. A “No Tolerance” policy is what you want on the school’s part and most certainly on your part as a parent. Impress upon the teachers and administrative staff your expectation as a parent is that your child should not have to be subjected to bullying, have a developmentally appropriate discussion with your student(s) about what bullying looks like (with specific examples) to prepare and empower them to respond appropriately. Another thing that may be out of your control as a parent but you should be the primary influence on your student(s) in regards to dealing with it!
- Lunch can be a stressful time for a student with Autism. It is essentially a “social hour”. It’s noisy, crowded, and pretty much overwhelming for someone with limited social skills. It is important to explore options. So for example seating in a less crowded, quieter setting (other than the cafeteria), if necessary. It may be necessary to even include lunch period in the IEP. If your child has a good, peaceful, enjoyable lunch it will make it easier for them to focus for the rest of the day.
- Consider After School Activities
- In middle school kids can join band and chorus. Studies show that children who participate in music programs do better academically. Autistic students also benefit from opportunities to socialize and create friendships with others based on common interests such as music and art.
After school programs are an opportunity for your student to do something fun and create relationships with others based on common interests, develop a positive association with school, and feel good about themselves! Win Win Win!
- Create Friendship groups
- Creating a group where children with special needs are paired with typical children to do special projects, social events, and service in the community is a great way to help your child socialize and build relationships. Your child being paired with someone who accepts them for exactly who they are will help them to accept, love, and value themselves.
A few General tips
Over the Summer:
The following are a few things you and your child can do to prepare over the summer
With the School :
- Discuss a potential schedule with the new middle school and the IEP team in regards to your student’s need for balance in their schedule, breaks, and resource support opportunities. Don’t forget to consider sensory issues when designing a schedule.
- Find out the names and contact information of the support staff (e.g. school Counselor, school Nurse, Behavioral Specialist, etc.) The school will typically have this information on their website.
- Find out how parents can become involved (if desired).
- Talk to your child periodically over the summer about the new school. What a day at the new school will look like, e.g. what time they will have to wake up in order to get to school on time, what will happen first at school. As specifically as you can go through the day with your child. Knowing what to expect of the day can be key in getting them through it.
- Drive your student by the school. Middle schools typically have larger campuses than elementary schools. Visiting the middle school to get familiar with the campus is a good way to start the transition process.
- Allow student to practice the route walking to classes (if known). Pay special attention to bathrooms, homeroom, cafeteria, main office, nurse’s office, and gym. It is important that your student identify a “safe place” from which they can regroup.
- Practice finding, unlocking and locking their lockers.
- Provide your student with school handbook (if available) so that they can become familiar with school rules and consequences of breaking them.
- Attend Parent/Student orientation.
- Practice where they will go and what to say if they need help.
- Prepare your student for the fact that they will encounter different teachers with different rules and teaching styles so they will need to be flexible.
- Purchase divider notebooks to help your student to stay organized.
- Address getting to and changing for gym class and locker room etiquette. Hygiene is a verb!
- Familiarize yourself with the online resource for parents such as Parent Vue to keep up with your student’s workload and assignments as well as their grades. This is becoming the best way for busy parents to stay in constant contact with their student’s academic life.
As a parent I truly hope that all of the above tips help you and your student(s) get your “Transition Mission” accomplished. I am praying on behalf of my family and yours that Middle School be an awesome, cultivating, learning, challenging, inspiring, fun experience for our children!
Sources: Vicker, B (2003), AAutisminRealLife.com
image from: Indian Grove Elementary School