Helping a child with ASD to get through the formative years of childhood
Jennifer’s Ockwell gives us her top 10 tips to help a child through their formative school years.
Jennifer was a guest invited along to one of our Medical Committee meetings and is a Mother of two autistic children. From her challenging, real life experiences of bringing up her children and the difficulties they have faced, she now tutors teachers and education specialists about the best ways to deal with autism in school:
“With a seemingly ever-increasing number of ASD diagnosis’ amongst children and young people, it is no wonder that school SENCo departments often appear over stretched and under staffed. When you add to that the familiar truism, ‘no two ASD children are the same’ it is little wonder, that school times can often present a challenge for our children – when they encounter so many sensory hurdles on a daily basis.
Often, for more high functioning ASD children, they can be capable of just about ‘holding it together’ when they are at school, only to crumble when they return home. As a result, parents are frequently told that their child ‘is not that bad’ and the little resource/support they have is redirected to those children with more obviously urgent needs.
It is important in these situations to try and build a strong working relationship with the school, so they understand you want to work together to provide the best possible environment for your child rather than appearing demanding/aggressive/emotional.
Here are 10 simple tips to help you and child throughout their formative school years:
Minimise sensory overload: provide your child with the ‘best’ noise cancelling headphones you can afford so that they appear more like DJ headphones than ear defenders worn by roadside workmen. These should be worn in assemblies/school plays – typically anywhere where a large number of children are in one room/hall. However, they should also be available in class for any periods of particular excitement.
Ask for your child to be excused from contact sports – rugby and football are particularly challenging when a child has to be on alert at all times to other children being physical with them.
Similarly, ask for your child to be excused from music lessons. It sounds obvious but this is possibly one of the most excruciatingly tortuous lessons for a child. Ear defenders are rarely sufficient in these circumstances. If you are told that there isn’t sufficient resource for your child to be absent from these lessons, suggest that they are allowed to sit in reception to work on a project of their choice.
If your child struggles with school dinners, ask that they are allowed to take in packed lunch. They may also need to have lunch a little earlier/later than the other diners – or eat in a different room to avoid the ambient noise/smells.
Ensure the school timetable is visible every morning and keep a copy printed on the wall so that the child can clearly see what is in store for the day ahead. You may not want to read it out each morning, indeed that may start to cause anxiety but as long as the child knows where the timetable is and can see it daily, that should be sufficient.
ASD children often struggle with homework as they feel their homes are a sanctuary away from school. Homework thus impinges on that safety net. Work with school to minimise the amount of homework. At the end of the day, the school will need to understand that as a parent, you need to choose your battles each day, and if homework is a consequence one day then so be it. If you can encourage your child to do their homework, they should be ‘over’ rewarded – maybe with additional screen time at the weekend.
ASD children frequently find playgrounds overwhelming, particularly at morning drop off and collection. Ask if you can drop off/collect your child from a more calming environment such as reception or classroom.
Unstructured and unsupervised break and lunchtimes can also be challenging. Ensure your ASD child has a ‘safe space’ if they feel stressed. Small spaces between walls and buildings often work. Libraries also provide sanctuary if they are staffed during these times.
ASD children often struggle with social ‘norms’ and can appear aloof or disinterested in typical childhood games such as ‘tag’ or football which can give the impression that these children want to be alone. This is rarely the case and whilst they often crave friendships, they can struggle to understand basic rules of friendship. Work with SENCo to identify groups of children with similar interests to help create a support network for your child.
Fairness and the application of ‘rules.’ ASD children tend to have a rigid interpretation of rules and tend to over-react if there is some real/perceived injustice. Typical arguing/bickering over something (which on the face of it would appear relatively insignificant) is a good example of how a situation can get out of hand. It is important that the ASD child is given the opportunity to explain their version of events in full and without interruption before any judgement/punishment is passed on.
And a final piece of advice is to pick your battles. Every day will be a challenge for your little one and neither they, nor school will get it right every time. Love, patience and understanding is the best anyone can do.”