For high school seniors, now is an anxious time. College applications are in, and the acceptances and rejections are starting to be sent out. It’s an anxious time for parents as well, whether is the first child to head off or the last. For parents of children on the autism spectrum, the anxieties can be even greater, as a child that has often had an adult to advocate for their needs is now going to need to be their own advocate.
It’s an important transition in life, but one that is especially difficult for students on the autism spectrum. As one student said in an article from the Child Mind Institute, there are so many little tasks involved in walking out the door in the morning (getting up, showering, dressing, eating, packing…) that students with autism often find their executive functioning (their ability to schedule and organize) overwhelmed with all the extra tasks involved in day-to-day living that it can be difficult to get schoolwork done as well.
The free Autism Speaks Transition Toolkit can help families prepare for this change, and a recent post at Chat for Adults with HFA and Asperger’s highlights 25 challenges a student on the autism spectrum may experience when they leave home for college. Among the challenges are:
- Class discussions
- Communicating long distance with parents
- Maintaining your own schedule
- Food choices that are not like home cooking
- Dealing with large lectures
- Dealing with your first low grades
While these and many of the other challenges listed are common for many students, they can provide extra difficulties for those students on the autism spectrum.
Families should also investigate what supports are available at college for students on the autism spectrum. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires colleges to provide reasonable accommodations for students who need them, but many colleges and universities are going beyond those minimums with special programs. Here in Illinois, Eastern Illinois University offers the Students with Autism Transitional Educational Program (STEP) to provide enhanced support in three main skill areas that these students may struggle with: academic, social, and daily living skills. Other colleges and universities may have similar supports available.
Going away to college can still be a rewarding experience for students on the autism spectrum, providing a chance to live independently and to dive deeply into subjects and activities of interest. Preparing for this transition and discussing the potential changes and issues can help to ease the anxiety both students and parents are experiencing. Be sure to read the full article on potential challenges at college for students on the autism spectrum (and even those who aren’t).
When you begin the process to get your child an Individualized Education Program (IEP), it can be an overwhelming, emotional, confusing, stressful, and frustrating time. While Illinois does provide a guide to help parents navigate special education services, you still may feel lost while everyone else involved has been through the process many times and is using all sorts of jargon and acronyms.
The special education parent blog, A Day in Our Shoes, has a useful post on the ten common parent mistakes during the IEP process. Those mistakes are:
- Not understanding that if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.
- Not valuing yourself as an important and equal member of your child’s IEP team.
- Not understanding the value of, or taking advantage of, the parental concerns portion of the IEP and the parent letter of attachment.
- Being too nice.
- Getting the procedural safeguards and tossing it on to the pile.
- Going to an IEP meeting without an advocate.
- Blindly requesting more services.
- Accepting the “Jiffy Lube” version of the IEP process.
- Comparing your child’s IEP to others’ IEPs.
- Not remaining child focused.
A Day in Our Shoes goes into a lot of detail for each of these points, so if you are headed into an IEP meeting, be sure to read the whole article to avoid these common mistakes.
Puberty. It’s a word that can worry parents about how to discuss physical changes and intimate topics with their child.
Parents of pre-teens on the autism spectrum may find themselves even more lost about how to address this transition with their child. The Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) and the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P) have collaborated to create the free ATN/AIR-P Puberty and Adolescence Resource: A Guide for Parents.
The guide was created to empower parents with the knowledge and strategies to help their children understand what is happening to their bodies and how to handle their new feelings. The guide also covers children and teens across the autism spectrum, including those who are nonverbal. Both medical experts and parents were involved in creating the guide, which covers topics such as body changes, self-hygiene, and public versus private behavior, as well as gender-specific topics like menstruation and wet dreams. The guide also includes sample scripts and visual aids to guide discussions.
You can download the free guide from Autism Speaks, which also provides other free toolkits for families with children on the autism spectrum.
Children are often stressed about school, whether it is an upcoming test, not understanding a homework assignment, or something mean that a friend said to them the day before. For students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or other learning disorders (LD), stress can often make school issues worse. The magazine ADDitude has published an article on its website on “Why Stress at School is Toxic to Kids with ADHD or LD.” While focused on children with ADHD and LD, the article has useful information for parents of any student.
The article identifies the following behaviors as good indicators that you child may be under stress at school:
- Refusal to do the work
- Devaluation of the task (“This is so stupid.”)
- Acting up or acting out to direct attention away from a challenging task
- Acting “in” or becoming depressed and withdrawn
- Exhibiting signs of anxiety (sweaty palms, tremors, headaches, difficulty breathing)
- Becoming engrossed in a task that they are already successful at or one that is fun (e.g., refusing to stop writing a story, doing a drawing, playing a video game, or listening to music)
- Efforts to encourage (“I know you can do this.”) are met with more resistance
- Asking an adult to stay close and help with every problem
The article notes that chronic stress decreases memory and cognitive flexibility while increasing anxiety and vigilance. As a result, stressed students often become defensive and protective, behaviors that often result in a student being labeled as a “bad kid.” Most students would rather be known as a “troublemaker” or “class clown” than as stupid, and consequently live up to those reputations. For children with ADHD and LD, repeated difficulties in school often result in increased frustration, leading to extra stress on these students.
Turning Things Around
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Moderate stress helps the brain to grow and can teach children how to handle stress in the future. It is crucial, however, to interpret the cause of stress so it can be managed effectively, turning stress into the fuel for success rather than having it erode confidence. The article provides a DE-STRESS model to help parents and children accomplish this. The steps of the DE-STRESS model are:
- Define the condition
- Reduce the risk
Be sure to check out the full article for an in-depth description of what to do in each of these steps to help your child handle their stress in a productive manner.