Adjusting to school is tough, but for kids on the autism spectrum, learning new rules and routines can be even more difficult. Here, the director of centers for Autism Home Support Services offers insight and advice.
Going to preschool is a big adjustment. From being in a routine at home with mom and dad to sitting in a classroom with a group of unfamiliar faces and new rules to learn, it’s a big transition for little ones. But these changes can be especially difficult for kids on the autism spectrum.
“Our kiddos on the autism spectrum tend to have difficulty generalizing the skills they learn in one environment to another environment,” says Tracy Crowe, the director of centers with Autism Home Support Services.
While some kids adjust to the rules and routines a few weeks into school, kids on the autism spectrum “are still going to struggle with learning the rules of the classroom.” Those rules, Crowe says, include sitting when asked to sit, taking turns and following directions.
“Typical kids start to look from the left to the right at other kids,” Crowe says. They turn to others for those cues on how to behave. But children on the spectrum tend to miss those nonverbal social cues happening in the classroom setting.
“Without someone guiding them at least initially, they don’t follow those routines,” Crowe says.
Signs of classroom readiness
As a parent, you know your child better than anyone. When evaluating classroom readiness, Crowe says there a few questions parents can ask to determine whether or not their child is ready:
1. What does their verbal communication look like? “When asking them to do something that they don’t want to do or even describing what they do want to do, how’s their verbal communication?” Crowe asks. When a kid is 3 or 4 years old, strangers should be able to understand about 75 to 100 percent of what kids say to them. At that age, kids should be putting some simple to moderately complex thoughts together, and they should be able to answer simple questions like, “Do you want animal cookies or cheese and crackers?”
2. Can a child take instruction that’s being given to more than one person? If someone gives a directive to two or three kids, such as “pick up your shoes and put them by the door,” is your child able to follow that two-step direction or does he or she need more help?
3. Does your child’s attention to a task last more than a couple of minutes? Whether it’s a craft or sitting and listening to you read a book to him or her, evaluate if your child is able to pay attention during these activities.
4. Can your child take turns? This is important for different group activities your child will be a part of in the classroom setting.
Ways to help your child
There are plenty of ways to set up opportunities to practice these skills at home, Crowe says.
“In the home, set up situations where kiddos have to make a verbal choice,” she suggests, such as deciding between two food options or two different books to read.
Set up scenarios where your child has to wait. For example, if you always have your child’s milk waiting at the table, avoiding doing this so when your child arrives at the table, he has to wait to be served.
Set up turn-taking scenarios, too. When playing with your child, tell him, “I’m going to put a ball in (a basket, for example) and then you put a ball in,” she suggests.
“These are things that I should be working on with any preschool kid,” she says. But with kids on the spectrum, parents will have to offer cues such as tapping kids on the hand or a shoulder touch to bring them back to the scenario.
At Autism Home Support Services, the Early Learners Group helps prepare students for the classroom. A classroom-like setting is created for these children, and the applied behavior therapists provide a one-on-one environment when the child needs it in order to help them with cues, Crowe adds.
“We are looking to provide kiddos with the skills that they need so they don’t need as much support when they are ready to go to a preschool environment,” Crowe says.
Their main focus is learning readiness, she adds. “It’s much less about academics and more about, ‘how can I get behavior under control so they can learn?’”