Students with ASD: How to adjust to a new routine this school year

By Megan Swinford, social worker, Thompson Autism Center at CHOC

Speak to any parent, and you’ll gain insight into the roller-coaster ride they’ve been on the past several months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents have adapted to having their children at home full-time while balancing their own work schedule, virtual learning, and have essentially transformed themselves into teachers.

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or special needs have had even more barriers to overcome, since Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy that children usually receive with a therapist in their home has declined due to the pandemic. Now that the school year is upon us, how can you prepare your child with ASD to return to school and adjust to the new normal?

Regardless of which structure your child’s school district offers, your child’s success in school will depend on their ability to adapt and be flexible to an ever-changing environment. This is no simple request considering students with ASD may have challenges with flexibility. The good news is there are ways that parents and teachers can work together to help ease their student’s anxiety:

Talk to the teacher about your child’s triggers for anxiety

If your child had virtual learning at home last spring, you’ve probably become more aware of their frustrations and triggers. Triggers may range from sensory issues to unstructured time to virtual interfacing with classmates or their teacher. Whatever their triggers are, it will be key for you to communicate these with your child’s teacher.

Create social stories with help from a behavioral analyst and/or teacher

Before in-person learning begins, reach out to your child’s therapy providers and have them practice social stories such as hand-washing, personal space and mask-wearing. This will help normalize some of the new procedures that your child will be faced with this year and prepare them for a better outcome. As a parent, getting involved in these therapy sessions, and understanding how you can translate and practice these social stories at home, will also be helpful.

Prepare a schedule—as best as you can

If your child will attend in-person learning this fall, get a copy of your child’s schedule and see if you’re able to visit the classroom before school is in session to build familiarity. Ask their teacher what health precautions will be enforced so that you can practice them. If your child’s school will continue with remote learning, follow these tips: try to have a start/end time each day, incorporate physical breaks that are planned for both you and your child, and create visual schedules.

Award flexibility with lots of praise and rewards

Make sure to award or praise even the smallest progress with your child’s flexibility toward new situations. This will encourage your child to respond positively to changes they may not be able to control. Since children with ASD can struggle without a consistent and dependable routine, teaching and reinforcing flexibility will be a strong skillset to develop.

Practice flexibility and openness yourself

Try to be open to unexpected outcomes, as hard as that can be. This will help model behavior for your child to follow. Flexibility and openness will be key in the next year, as schools adjust to putting new protocols in place to safeguard their students.

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