Most school-aged kids love the field trips, splash days, assemblies, and other fun activities that fill the last few weeks of a school year. But the changes in routine and the rowdy atmosphere can be very frustrating for students from pre-school through high school who are diagnosed with autism, sometimes pushing them toward withdrawal or into a loud, emotional meltdown.
Teachers, family members, and others might want to consider taking some action to help make things run smoother if they see frustration and agitation levels rising as the school year draws to a close. Here are a few strategies that have helped some of my friends with autism over the years.
(1) FOLLOW REGULAR ROUTINE. Most individuals with autism thrive on routine, so consider keeping the regular classroom routine intact, following the same schedule and teaching in the same manner as earlier in the year. Familiarity and a regular daily regimen help decrease agitation and increase calmness. Several years ago one of my pre-teen friends with autism suddenly started having multiple severe behavior outbursts at school. She was obviously extremely frustrated, and, although she had good language skills, she was not able to express the source of her anger and discomfort. After several days of trying to figure out the catalyst for her angry outbursts, we solved the mystery. Her intermediate school was celebrating the end of the year creatively by allowing students to wear flip-flops on Mondays, shorts on Tuesdays, pajamas on Wednesdays, colorful knee socks on Thursdays, and hats with sunglasses on Fridays. That change in routine and “breaking the rules” was too much for this young lady, and, because she did not know how to express her concern, she melted down.
(2) MINIMIZE INTERRUPTIONS. I spend time in dozens of schools every week, and notice that the frequency of announcements and other interruptions in the classroom increases dramatically during the last few weeks of school. In order to minimize those anxiety producing interruptions for some of their students with autism, some teachers request that the office turn their room off the PA system and send them notices and announcements via email. Because some classrooms for kids with special needs have kitchens or refrigerators and microwaves, the frequency of teachers or others using those facilities in preparation for class parties or special projects can increase dramatically during the last few weeks of school. Some teachers request that people only enter during breaks in classes to minimize the interruptions.
(3) AVOID SURPRISES. In most cases, it is wise to sit down regularly with students diagnosed with autism to review the calendar for the upcoming month, then again on Friday afternoon so they know what to expect for the following week. By starting each day with a review of the happenings for that day and reminding our friends of changes in schedule and routine, we can help them approach special end-of-school events with a sense of adventure rather than anxiety.
NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at talk@FAQautism.com with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. http://FAQautism.com