As a parent, when you are supporting a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you begin to think of the world in terms of the challenges they may face while navigating their daily routines. You also think of how well they can manage these obstacles on a day to day basis with all the support that you and your child’s team have put in place. When we imagine a typical school day, there are so many disruptions that can occur: getting on the school bus with new staff and new aides; disruptions on the school bus (children being loud, traffic, bussing issues); arriving to class with the hustle and bustle; teacher absences; schedule changes; changes in related services and providers; and loudspeaker announcements. All of this can happen before 9:00 am and helps you realize how successful your child has become in handling his or her day.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in New York State were closed for several months. Changes to the daily schedule caused significant disruption to children with ASD. Impacted families expressed concerns about increased behavioral problems, regression of skills gained, and an increase in anxiety while a new “normal” was being established. Many families worked tirelessly to support their children and provide balance as schools developed their reopening plans.
Just as a new routine was being established at home, many schools reopened, creating new obstacles. In order to provide and maintain a safe environment, school districts have developed multiple variations for the new school day, including hybrid models that change daily weekly. Whether students are attending school in person or remotely, the classroom environment has been modified. The result may include fewer opportunities to engage in social interactions, limited transitions and movement breaks and required mask wearing throughout the day. With all these changes, how do we help children with ASD transition back to school in person during the continued COVID-19 outbreak?
Wearing a mask is a new skill for many of us. We will approach this as any new skill and teach your child to be successful in this area. Model wearing a mask whenever possible. This includes wearing a mask within the home to help desensitize your child to engaging with others who wear masks and increase their comfortability with masks. If your child is unable to tolerate wearing a mask, all personnel that they interact with at school will be wearing a mask. Social stories, choices in mask color and/or design, and a reward system for tolerating a mask are all strategies that can be tried. As they begin to get more comfortable, set a timer for one minute, and encourage them to wear their mask with you. Practice this multiple times a day. As the timer rings, remove the mask. The key is to remove the mask before it becomes aversive or before they remove it themselves. As they become more comfortable tolerating the minute of wearing a mask, gradually increase the duration of wearing a mask and increase the rewards to match the effort of tolerating the mask. Aside from school, wearing a mask is essential in order to participate in activities outside of the home.
Use Visual Supports:
Depending on your child’s ability to understand schedules, create a daily or weekly visual schedule (hybrid days, school days, remote learning days, etc.) based on the school schedule. On remote learning days, ensure there is a schedule in place that offers structure and consistency for your child. On school days, a visual of your child wearing a mask should also be placed on the calendar so that they know the expectations and can better prepare for it.
Due to restrictions and guidelines at school, your child may not receive as many movement activities/movement breaks throughout the day. Engaging in movement activities before school may help with the transition to school, where there may be prolonged times of sitting or remaining stationary at a desk. Engaging in movement activities after school is equally important after sitting for most of the day. Movement breaks can be short in duration but completed multiple times per day. This can be in the form of a walk around the block while waiting for the morning school bus; jumping jacks in the driveway while waiting for the bus; a dance break listening to 2-3 favorite songs of choice; an afternoon bike ride; or watching videos of kid friendly Zumba or yoga routines. It is important to note that videos can be both a physical and mental activity if your child is still working on imitation skills. If your child appears to get frustrated by videos, find alternatives for movement.
Reach out to your child’s teacher and ask for visual supports to help your child navigate the day with ease. Ask for pictures of the child’s working area/desk, area of where snack and lunch will be eaten, areas of recess, the teacher’s desk, the bathroom area, and any other area that the child may encounter while at school. This will help in the development of a social story with visual aids of what your child’s day to day will look like. With actual pictures of their setting, your child may become more familiar and comfortable with their environment. If possible, ask the teacher when masks are required to be worn and include a picture of a mask icon in these areas.
Implement a debriefing and snack time when your child returns home from school. Utilize your child’s communication modality (Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), Vocal Speech, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)) and ask about the day. Prepare visuals to help them identify emotions, activity icons, and items in the backpack that they would like to show you. Make this period fun and stress-free. You know your child best. If debriefing right after school is too much, wait until later. Debriefing should be a regular part of the home schedule.
Reward successful days at school to encourage the new routine. Rewards can be as simple as picking a snack from a “special bin” or engaging in a favorite game. When using a reward for transition back to school, that specific reward should not be used at any other time during the day. This will strengthen the correlation between their “most favorite item” to “success at school” and maintain motivation. Always rely on your child’s feedback and choices regarding which reward items to use. This can change daily, weekly, or monthly depending on your child’s needs.
Rhonda Stewart, LBA-BCBA, is Lead Clinical Supervisor of Insurance Services at Beyond Boundaries.
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