Autism and Going Back to School: A Must Read for Teachers and Parents

Autism and Going Back to School: A Must Read for Teachers and Parents

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I taught school off and on over eleven years. I am also a parent of a child with Autism. So one could say I clearly understand both sides of the picture when it comes to the beginning of school. It can be complicated, overwhelming, stressful, and yet exciting. The emotions are much more intense for kids with Autism. But the stress of having to face the social norms and functioning once again with peers can be daunting. I would even go as far to say that most higher functioning children with Autism stress more about the socialization aspect of school then other areas, though they may not always realize it or be able to express it.

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Here are some simple tips and reminders to help families and teachers prepare the darlings for going back to school:

  • Remind them weeks and days ahead of time when the first day of school is.
  • Go visit the school and the new teacher and classroom before the first day of school.advocate2
  • Email the new teacher a few days before going back to school. Allow your child to ask some questions, share some concerns, etc.
  • Spend some time playing on the playground before going back to school. This will allow time for your child to relax a bit and readjust back into school.explaining5
  • When you visit the classroom, take pictures of your child sitting in the new desk, with the new teacher, etc. This way you can help prepare your child for going back to school by looking at the pictures and talking about them once you go back home.
  • Read books about going back to school. Write social stories about going back to school. Ask the teacher for a daily schedule ahead of time so you can begin to process it with your child.
  • Find some students in the class that you might recognize or know from previous years that you know has been helpful and positive for your child. Let the teacher know who they are. Also, do not hesitate to express concern over any student who you know can be a trigger for your child.
  • Parents, consider writing a letter to the teacher, explaining who your child is and the “dos and don’ts”.
  • Teachers, consider writing a letter to the student (and family) telling who you are, things you like to do, etc. Make the family feel welcome to your classroom.
  • One of my all-time favorite ideas is to have the teacher within the first few days of school talk to the class about Autism. I usually suggest doing this while your child is out of the room, maybe for speech or something. The teacher can explain briefly what Autism is, how it affects people, and what we can do to help people that have it. If you are comfortable with it, allow the teacher to even tell the students your child has Autism. When I have done this for my son, the school year has been MUCH better socially! The students accept him and understand why he acts the way he does. They go out of their way to help him and understand when they need to back off from him to give him space. It truly makes all the difference in a school year. If your child is old enough, consider having him/her talk to the class about it, or even yourself! If you are the teacher reading this, approach the parents and ask about it. I have done this before and usually get a positive response from parents. Again, I have seen students go from feeling irritated and annoyed with the student, to complete empathy and understanding towards the student.

TEACHERS: Remember these parents are exhausted and very busy! Just like you! So they may not respond quickly to emails or phone calls. Be patient with them and understanding of their situation. We want what is best for our child, but often we need to process it. I sometimes think families that have members with any disability is a culture all of its own. Often teachers struggle to make connections with these families; I think this is likely why. Sometimes just asking the family how you can continue to help and support them makes them feel more appreciated and loved. Continue doing the best you can, get support from teammates, and love on that student!

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Feel free to ask any questions you might have about going back to school. Tis the season! And Good Luck!

Jen Edwards, LMHCA

Counselor and Behavior Therapist

jen@BeautifulAutism.com

Autism: Going to Bed Alone

Autism: Going to Bed Alone

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I recently heard somewhere at a training I went to that nearly 80% of individuals with Autism struggle with sleep in some capacity. I feel the parents of my client’s pain when the walk into my office looking like they only got a few hours of sleep the night before, as likely I also only got that much in my home! One common complaint I often hear is the child will not sleep in his/her own bed. I smile and nod, knowing all too well how the scenario looks each evening.

It is 8:00, the hour you dread because you know the fight is coming, and yet your body aches and screams for it because it is exhausted and needs sleep. You get your child ready for bed… teeth are brushed, pajamas are on, story is read. Then the whining and crying begins, all because they do not want to be alone, or they cannot go to sleep without touching some other person. At 11:00 you and the child are still awake, it feels like a nightmare, and you finally give in and just snuggle up to your child for some attempt at a few good hours of sleep, only to be kicked throughout the night and woken at 5:00 to the happy smile of your child ready for the bright day ahead.

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Yep, this is our story too. There are some nights that are successful for our son to go to bed alone. But this is a battle that even at 8 years old we still have to fight. Here are some thoughts we have learned over the years and some that clients have tried with success!

  • Ask your child’s doctor about using something to help your child fall asleep, such as Melatonin. This is a simple, inexpensive over the counter natural product you can find at any pharmacy.
  • Sleep with the bedroom doors open throughout the house until your child relaxes enough to sleep through the night.
  • Try creating a “brave shelf” in the bedroom. Put things on it that help give confidence to your child, such as superheroes, awards, treats, favorite toys, pictures, etc.
  • Let your child have toys, blankets, books, or anything else to help keep him/her in bed. If he/she ends up playing for a while, consider this better to the alternative! If you need to put the child to bed earlier because of the playing, then do so.Are-your-kids-going-to-bed-too-late
  • Practice going to bed throughout the day. Use a social story, pictures, etc. to help the child understand what is going to happen.
  • If your child is currently sleeping in your bed, take baby steps back to his/her bed. It might look something like sleeping on the floor for a few nights, then moving into the hallway, then further down the hallway, and finally into the bedroom.
  • If your child is struggling because he/she needs to touch someone, try having him/her sleep in a small sleeping bag under a quilt. This will give the impression of feeling secure.
  • Give rewards for any accomplishment, but be careful to not overdo the awards. For example, if your child sleeps all night in the bedroom alone, give a reward such as a treat or an extra privilege. But then the expectation is now set higher, so to earn another reward he/she might need to sleep a whole week alone.
  • Find appropriate times to work on this skill. Working on this when school begins might not be the best option. Working on it during the summer or school break is a better option.
  • Try having a pet sleep with him/her.pet
  • Have your child sleep with a weighted blanket; this has proven very successful. In the summer months, use a fan to help with staying cool.
  • Some families have had success with having white noise in the room. This can be a fan, noise machines (you can find these reasonably priced on Amazon), or music.

Going to bed alone is tough on little guys, especially with Autism. But I encourage you to fight the battle and stay strong. Find the supports you need and pounce on any encouragement you find!

Jen Edwards, LMHCA

jen@BeautifulAutism.com

425-387-3872

Autism and School Conferences: 5 Things for Teachers to Remember

Autism and School Conferences: 5 Things for Teachers to Remember

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We dread conference time. As parents of a child with Autism, going to conferences and IEP meetings is just not a happy experience for us. The school staff is generally great and a blessing to our son and his needs. But unlike so many families, we do not get to hear glowing remarks and we often leave feeling once again defeated.
As a teacher, I tried hard to send positive emails to the families of students with disabilities. This helped with a positive relationship and it also encouraged the parents as well as the students. Thus I have put together some simple things teachers can do to help these families during conference time.
1) Begin with sending an email out ahead of time to the parents with some positives, but also, if needed, some things that you will be going over during the conference so parents can begin preparing themselves.

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2) Keep in mind these parents have a lot on their plate already and are dealing with special circumstances with their child. There is no need to tell and explain all the negative things unless they are truly necessary. And if you question what is necessary to talk about, then speak with the special education teacher in your building or your principal.
3) Find and give any and all positive remarks. Even if it is small things like the student was able to sit through circle time without rolling around on the floor. These are big things for families. Keep a list if that helps to remind you of things. And use your paras to help with this too.
4) Assure the parents that you will continue to do all you can to work with their child. Assure them you are not giving up on their child. Though as teachers we may not say we are giving up, it can often feel this way to parents when they hear so many negative things. Keep smiling and show your love and care.

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5) Follow up afterwards a couple days later with an email or note home just to check in with parents. If appropriate, give your thoughts on how the conference went. But more importantly, make the parents feel appreciated.
Parents always want what is best for their child. They want to help their child succeed in school and be supportive of their child. However, if they walk away feeling defeated, this will often transfer onto the child. Keep a strong and positive communication with these families. They will greatly appreciate it!
Teachers are amazing and often do such wonderful work! They work endless hours and do their best to meet each child’s individual need. Their work is hard and often under-appreciated. But anyone who works day in and out to do whatever they can for students with special needs is golden and your work does not go unnoticed by those who care and need it. Bless all of you and thank you for your hard work and dedication!

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Jen Edwards, MA Counselor and Behavior Therapist
jen@BeautifulAutism.com
425-387-3872

Autism: Small Victories

Autism and Small Victories

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I was feeling rather defeated the other day after some negative news on resources for my son and he had a rough day. It was one of those days when I had the depressing feelings of am I a good enough mother, do I have the strength to do this? I know these dark thoughts penetrate the worst feelings I can have.

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After reflecting on this not-so-good day, I realized all the small victories we had that day. My son ate some healthy food (a constant battle), he entertained himself playing in his room, and attempted to pick blackberries with me. So I smiled and said a small prayer of thanks for the small victories that we had.

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What small victories do you get? Maybe it is a hug or eye contact, or maybe you were able to hide vegetables in your child’s meal and it was unknown. How do you hold onto those victories? I occasionally put our victories on Facebook for our family and friends to see and enjoy with us. Usually they are often in the form of funny quotes from my son, as these make us stop and laugh, a small victory we treasure. Perhaps you write things down in a journal or book of some sort.
It often seems as if we have more setbacks than victories. The setbacks causes stress and tension. Use the victories to relieve the stress and tension. Savor in these moments and treasure them. Remind your child (without overdoing it) how happy these victorious moments make you.

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So for now, press on and stay calm dear friends! Victories do come, often in small doses and at times even not recognizable. But nonetheless a blessing!
Jen Edwards
jen@beautifulautism.com
http://www.beautifulautism.com

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Autism: Arranging the Bedrom

Autism: Arranging the Bedroom

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We just recently moved and I have been setting up my son’s room. A lot of thought went into how to set up his room, as we are very tight for space currently and his room is arranged much differently than before. But this got me thinking on how this will impact him, and after I finished his room he does not seem to spend much time in it.
When arranging your child’s bedroom, you need to think simple and calming. Keep in mind that your child’s brain processes very differently and can get very over stimulated; this makes it difficult to get calm and sleep well if the bedroom is not calming.
Things to put in the room include a comfortable bed, appropriate low level lighting, books, soft stuffed animals, blankets and pillows (and of course clothes). Some examples of low level lighting might include a lamp or lava lamps. A soft chair or something like a bean bag chair might be a nice touch near the books to snuggle up in while reading.

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Avoid putting in toys, colorful lighting, hard items, or anything that can cause harm to your child or even you (if your child has a tendency to throw things when upset). Again, you want this room to be a calming experience for your child. The items listed here can cause overstimulation and make it difficult for sleeping and calming.
If possible, have the toys in a separate room other than a bedroom. This allows separation of playing and sleeping. However, if this is not possible, as for us it is not at the moment, attempt to put the room in two sections. Have the sleeping part in one half of the room and the playing in the other half. Try to keep the lighting low and do not put out too many toys. You may have to rotate toys to reduce the overwhelming amount.

This picture demonstrates the idea of separating the play area from the sleeping area if it is needed to share the same space.

This picture demonstrates the idea of separating the play area from the sleeping area if it is needed to share the same space.

It is easy to place your child in his/her bedroom when meltdowns or discipline occurs. However, try to avoid this as you want to keep the bedroom a calming place. Find another place to allow for these happenings. This place should be a safe place without hard things that will cause damage if thrown.

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These ideas are difficult to implement at times, but can make such a wonderful difference. I would love to hear your thoughts or comments!
Jen Edwards
jen@beautifulautism.com

Living with a Child with Autism

This post was also posted on http://voyagescounseling.wordpress.com/ when I first wrote it, so some of you  may have read it before.

Living with a Child with Autism

                Oh no, we are in for another meltdown I thought as the bus stopped and I looked at my son through the window.  He had that look.  I stepped onto the bus and helped the bus assistant unhook his harness.  He began fighting back and screaming; it took me five minutes to get him off the bus, all the while dragging him and trying to protect the other kids from his kicking legs and swinging arms.  The driver and assistant assured me nothing out of the ordinary had happened on the trip home and he had gotten on the bus in a good mood.  Then why the meltdown now I thought.

I could not get my son into the house; I finally had to call my husband and have him come home to help me.  Once in the house he continued to throw the tantrum of the century for about forty-five minutes; then finally he sat up, looked around, and stated he wanted to play.  By this point I was frustrated beyond belief, my body ached from holding his forty-seven pounds down to protect him from throwing himself into the wall, and the tears simply could not stop themselves from coming.  I looked at my son, now finally recognizing him while during the last forty-five minutes I had no idea who he was, what he was thinking, or why he was acting the way he was.  It is just another typical day I thought to myself.

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My Son Versus the Autism

Living with my son is easy; living with the Autism is the challenge.  To put it simply, Autism is the abnormality of three distinctive areas: social, communication, and behaviors.  I often think if it was just one of these things it would not be so bad, but all three combined together on a continual basis is challenging.  I look at my son often and wonder what is going on in his head; I wish that he could simply express to me his thoughts or feelings.  At nearly five years old he still cannot do this, however he is learning with therapy and teaching.  The other day he came home and asked me how I was feeling, I responded I was feeling excited, to which he looked at me, obviously confused, and stated, “no mommy, happy or sad.”  Everything is very literal and black-and-white to him; “I’m feeling happy” I told him, and this answer seemed to suffice his curiosity.

Everything must be put in order and schedules must be adhered to religiously.  Something simple such as having him brush his teeth in the evening before changing into his pajamas can throw him off and cause havoc the rest of the evening.  One Sunday we attended church, as normal, and his Sunday School classroom had changed for the week.  This simple change, which seemed to any ordinary person not a big deal, was awful for my son, and I ended up having to sit with him in the nursery the rest of the morning.  Explaining any type of change to him ahead of time is crucial.

Positives in my Son

Certainly there are positive aspects to my son.  He constantly makes us laugh with his odd behaviors and silly antics.  He can get on a kick and watch the same movie multiple times a day (which gets annoying) but reenacts the entire movie scene by scene, words mixed up and intonation often awkward sounding.  His energy drains me but can be humorous to watch when he spins around in circles, falling to the floor laughing hysterically.

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Many people with Autism cannot sympathize or empathize with others; and though my son does struggle with this, he is able to emotionally connect with us on occasion.  This simply must be done on his timing and his rules.  When he feels sad he needs to cuddle; when he is tired he needs to be able to touch someone.  He is learning how to read other peoples facial expressions and understand how they are feeling.  He still often confuses looks, especially since in his mind there are only two feelings, sad and happy, and he often over dramatizes the reaction he should have to someone.  Many people say to me, “oh, that is typical child behavior at his age”; it is a saying I have come to loathe.  Yes, some of these traits are typical for a young child, but not to the extreme that a child with Autism will have.

Coping with Autism

So how do parents handle and cope with these challenges?  We lean on each other for support, plain and simple.  We tag-team each other and hold onto consistency.  We also do not let others comments and thoughts get to us (though admittedly sometimes it does).  The power of prayer helps us more than anything else.

Every person with Autism has similar characteristics, but has individual challenges.  Because of this, every parent must find what works best for their child.  One of the most challenging things to handle is in public when our son begins to have a meltdown.  People look at us, expecting us to discipline and reason with our child, but this is not our son, he cannot reason when he gets this way and disciplining has no effect on the situation.  When these meltdowns occur, we have to look at whether he is acting out due to being overwhelmed and thus it is more Autistic behavior, or if he is simply being naughty.   Our conclusion on this is how we deal with the situation.  We feel the looks of others, we feel the cold-hard stares, we hear the comments, and we want to respond and yell, “He has AUTISM!  Give us a break!”  But we know that will do us no good.

Many of you are single parents, and raising a child with some type of emotional, behavioral, or developmental problem.  My sincerest praise goes to you!  How you manage it is beyond me, but somehow you do.  Many studies actually show the divorce rate among parents of children with Autism is nearly 80%.  At first this was staggering to me, but once I pondered on it, I seemed to understand the sad truth to this.  Parents become exhausted, and during this time communication breaks down and tension runs very high.  Many parents, both fathers and mothers, feel like they cannot handle the stress; they have difficulty understanding their child and eventually give up.

Before this situation happens, seek help.  There are resources out there available for parents.  Many larger cities have Autism centers, a simple internet search can find these.  Schools can be wonderful resources with special education teachers that can offer guidance and resources.  Family therapy can be another wonderful resource; an area I specialize in, specifically in helping families cope with this types of issues.

Summarize

Do we love him any less because of the Autism?  No.  If anything, we love him more.  Do we feel sorry for ourselves because of his diagnosis?  No, but I admit we feel challenged enough by it to feel frustrated and drained.  Do we have all the answers and know what to do all the time?  No, we never will.  But we do our best, we find resources to help, and we take it day-by-day.

Resources

www.autism.org

www.autismspeaks.org

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

www.autism-society.org/