Challenges Mainstreamed ASD Adolescents Face in Transitioning to Middle School
Adolescents in general have challenges transitioning from elementary school to middle school. No longer are they in a self-contained classroom, but must move to a different classroom with a different teacher for each subject. They have to keep track of assignments and have different books for each class they must carry around. For children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who have been mainstreamed in elementary school, the transition to middle school is even more difficult.
A common complaint of parents of autistic teenagers is that the child’s autism is getting worse. Chantal Sicile-Kira, mother of an autistic child who is now an adult, has written several books about parenting children with an ASD. She is the author of the book, “Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum.” She reminds parents that their teenager is not becoming “more noncompliant because their autism is getting worse. It’s because they are teenagers.” It seems to them that everything is out of their control. Where they are supposed to be and what time they are to be there can be overwhelming. With a little more knowledge, and suggestions for parents of middle school students with ASD, the back to school experience may be improved.
Gaps in Executive Functioning
One ASD researcher, Michael Rosenthal, who is a neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute authored a study on “executive functioning” and how it affects teenagers with ASD and their peers. Executive functioning refers to those skills people use to “make plans, keep track of time, remember past experiences and relate them to the present, change course if they hit a roadblock, ask for help, maintain self-control and work successfully in a group.” Rosenthal’s study found that teens with ASD develop these skills slower than their peers.
In middle school, and beyond to secondary school, students have to keep track of different assignments for different classes, have many books to cart around, follow complex directions, and have deadlines for turning in homework on time. Teens with ASD need extra help with executive functioning, which includes the organizing and planning that is required for turning in assignments on time. They will need more support from their family than those without ASD.
Unfortunately, the school support they had in elementary school drops off in middle school. Fortunately, there are some things parents can do to help their middle school child with ASD to fit into the mainstream classroom.
Parent Interventions to Improve the Back-to-School Experience for Their Middle School Students with ASD
Many ASD teens dislike change. Now, they are faced with change in that they have to go back to school after summer vacation. They face a change in schools, teachers, classrooms, and classmates. The idea of this can fill the student with anxiety. Just a few suggestions to parents from some professionals and parents include:
Visit the classroom and teachers before schools starts. Teachers are generally at the school a few days before school starts. Parents should arrange a time when they can visit the school with their student and visit the teachers. If the student meets the teacher and views the classroom before having to deal with the noise and distractions of the first day of school with all the other students, adjustment will be much easier. Even if the school has a back-to-school event or open house, this can seem more chaotic than helpful to an autistic teen. Better to meet quietly with the teachers one-on-one before the first day of class.
Make detailed preparations for the first day. In addition to meeting the teachers and visiting the classroom, parents can go to the school ahead of time and get their child’s schedule. They should walk with their child from class to class in the same order the child will do it on the first day of school. Do it over and over until the child is comfortable with the path. If there are lockers, find out the one assigned to the child and have them learn how to locate it and use the lock.
Help for visual learners. Many children with an ASD are visual learners. Before school starts, parents can create an album with photos of the school, the locker, the cafeteria, and even photos of their teachers, if possible. A daily written schedule may be helpful. Let the teachers know that activities may need step-by-step visual guides in order to reduce the stress to the teen.
Practice. When there is a new event or new schedule, parents should be sure the school and the individual teachers know to notify them ahead of time. That way, they can practice any new skills required or new tasks that the student is expected to perform so the student will be less stressed when actually required to perform the task.
Frequently check the individualized education plan (IEP). Parents need to keep a copy of the IEP handy so they can check it frequently to be sure their student is receiving the services he or she is supposed to be receiving. This includes things like speech therapy or other therapies
Encourage independence and development of relationships. All teenagers struggle to be independent during this phase of their lives. The same is true of autistic teenagers. They all desire friends and to be accepted by their peers. This is difficult for many teens and even more difficult for those with autism. Some are bullied. Others retreat into themselves and research indicates autistic students are “less likely to take part in social activities” than other students who have other disabilities. A special interest, which “is common to autism, can be an escape from social interaction.” But, it can also be used to connect with other teenagers who are interested in the same topic.