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5 Tips to Help Ease the Transition for Students with Autism

School in 2020 looks different for students across the nation. While a new school year is always about change—new teachers, new classrooms, new friends—2020 brings the uncertainty of virtual or in-person learning (or a combination of both), masks, social distancing, handwashing, and more.

Those on the autism spectrum may struggle with these changes more than some of their other peers. Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center’s Paige B. Raetz, PhD, BCBA-D, director of teen and adult services, and Rachel Anderson, MA, BCBA, director of children’s services, offer tips on how to ease the transitions.

1. Start an early morning routine. “Whether virtual or in-person, it’s a good idea to establish a morning routine that can be consistent each day,” Raetz explains. Consider what types of things might help a person get focused and ready for the day. For example, music could be played at breakfast or a 10-minute stretch or deep breathing exercise before class. “Whatever the activity, building a consistent morning routine can be helpful starting the school day,” she says.

2. Create a focused environment. It’s important to include frequent breaks scheduled each day for your student. Utilize daily schedules that are easy to see and access (maybe on a wall near the workstation or desk). Also include times that each activity/class will start and stop and consider using timers or devices like Alexa or Google Home to help prompt when a break is ending. Use pictures if your child is a more visual learner. “You may consider drafting suggested activities your student can do on their break to help facilitate any downtime,” says Raetz.

3. Set realistic goals. This is new territory for all of us.  Establish how long your child can remain focused and work up from there. And with any good plan, the most important part is to motivate, motivate, motivate. Earning small prizes, points, or tokens for remaining focused can be a great tool to ensure success for everyone.

4. Facilitate social interactions. “Remain vigilant in social opportunities for your student,” says Anderson. For example, help facilitate a virtual playdate. Perhaps the kids can build a small, pre-selected Lego set together. Or play a video game. But if the kids decide on something else, that’s great too and let them go off plan! This will help build friendships, as well as help when there’s another known face on the virtual call during school.

For older students, if they have a trusted friend in their school/class, see if they can share phone numbers so they can text each other if they run into an issue or challenge.

5. Provide ongoing guidance. As your student progresses in their school year, constantly monitor their learning environment to ensure their classroom experience is successful. Here are five additional supporting tips for in-person and virtual learners:

  • Find a space that has few distractions or consider sound-canceling headphones to help with surrounding distractions.
  • Create some resources that they can have on hand if there are technical issues. For example, a binder ring with notecards that have different tips for different scenarios. One card might be titled: “What to do if I get kicked out of a Zoom call” then bullets with possible solutions. 
  • Establish a central area for all log-in information and passwords. This might be a sticky note in the top drawer of a desk or on a calendar. 
  • Consider the lighting, ensuring that your child can be seen on Zoom and that they can see the computer screen without reflections. Also, check that their chair is appropriately sized for them, with their feet able to rest flat on the floor and their back supported.
  • If a school requires wearing a face mask, help your student warm up to the idea by offering as many options as possible. For instance, that might mean trying different fabrics or getting masks with the child's favorite character or sports team on it. In essence, walk your student through their choices and let them pick. Offer rewards as they incrementally increase the amount of time they're able to wear a mask before becoming agitated or taking it off.

Looking for more? We know that with a shift in schedules, routines, and the overall navigation of new processes, there may be a need for a little extra support right now. SARRC remains open and committed to delivering medically necessary services to families living in Arizona. SARRC offers short-term and long-term programs, as well as free trainings and educational webinars. To view a complete list of services, click here »


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