Written by Marguerite Elisofon Author of My Picture Perfect Family: What Happens When One Twin Has Autism
1. Buy school supplies WAY in advance, while stores are less crowded and fully stocked. Especially with a child on the spectrum, it’s important whenever possible to avoid long lines and noisy crowded places. Even if you don’t have a complete list of supplies from your school until the last minute, you can still shop early for many items and pick up the remaining few separately, right before the semester starts. Encourage your child to be actively involved with selecting notebooks, backpacks, pens, binders, etc. Is your child’s favorite color blue? Buy the blue notebook and pencil case. Is your child crazy about Hello Kitty or Spiderman? Find a backpack or lunch box with his or her favorite character.
2. Clothing—if your child on the spectrum doesn’t wear a uniform to school, he or she can transition into the classroom by wearing summer shorts and tee shirts. That’s one less change in routine and one less disruption. Stock up on fall and winter clothes in advance of the season, as soon as they are available in stores. As always, you want to avoid mobs and rushing. If your child is having a bad day, you don’t want to feel pressured to shop. If you’re shopping far enough in advance, you’ll have the luxury of choosing a better day. If your child hates to shop, I suggest motivating them to cooperate by offering a reward such as ice cream or a fun activity. If your child wears a uniform to school, getting dressed on weekdays will be simpler, but you will still need to buy weekend clothes.
Laying out a clean uniform or a choice of outfit the night before saves time and reduces stress in the morning. Ask for your child’s input. Take this opportunity to develop the life skill of choosing appropriate attire for the weather and occasion. Is it going to rain? Put out galoshes and raincoats. Will it be chilly in the morning, waiting for the bus? Leave out a sweater or light jacket. Dialogue with your child about these choices and why they make sense. Your child is more likely to be on time and everyone’s morning will probably go more smoothly.
When your children on the spectrum are young, it’s especially important to make it easy for them to dress independently. I recommend sneakers with Velcro instead of laces, zippers over buttons, and soft stretchy fabrics that slip on and off easily. You may need to remove all tags and labels to accommodate sensory issues. My daughter ripped out scratchy labels, often tearing her clothes unless I snipped them out first. Finally, try to find some fun in clothing selection. Let your child wear their favorite color and develop their own sense of style.
3. Bedtime—if possible establish a routine for school nights. For years my daughter listened to the same Linda Ronstadt tape before falling asleep. Your ASD child may prefer to read a story, watch TV or play video games in order to relax before bed. The goal is to ensure that your child gets enough sleep so he or she can function at their best. (Mom and Dad also need time to unwind.) Establish a reasonable bedtime for school days, weekends and vacations, and help your child stick to it.
4. Lunch—Make sure your child has healthy, well-balanced choices in their lunch box. My daughter insisted on a green apple every single day. Why not? I always gave her one, along with her sandwich and juice box. It’s important to honor your child’s taste preferences and sensitivities. Some kids need each food item to be carefully separated; others avoid certain textures or colors. Food fights aren’t worth it. Pack a lunch your child will eat.
5. Time Management—Help your child figure out how much time he or she needs to get ready for school. For younger children, you set the alarm, lay out the clothes, and serve breakfast. As your child gets older, he or she can begin to take over these responsibilities. Your mission is to gradually make yourself obsolete. Will your 8 year old reliably brush his or her teeth, without a reminder? Is your daughter able to comb the knots out of her own hair or will she walk out the door looking disheveled? At 10, my daughter brushed her teeth, dressed herself without help, poured her own bowl of Cheerios, but brushing her hair properly required assistance and supervision for several more years.
6. Mental Preparation—If your child’s previous school year was wonderful, be sure to remind him or her of last year’s success. Will they see a favorite teacher or classmate who’s been away all summer? Does your child love art or music class? If last year was difficult, emphasize all the ways that this year will be better. Cheerlead your child into a better vision. For example, “Now you’re in 8th grade and you get the privilege of leaving school for lunch.” Reassure them: “You definitely will not have that same math teacher again.” Ask your child what they’re looking forward to and what they’re anxious about. Above all, reassure them that you are there to help with whatever problems may come up, just like you were last year. You can remind your child about their past accomplishments. “Remember when you thought you’d never ride a bike or learn long division?” And then help them set achievable goals. “I bet you’ll be able to read chapter books this year.”
7. Medical Check Up—Make sure your child is healthy. Is your kid’s vision perfect? Weak eyesight interferes with learning at school, but may not be obvious. My daughter had 20/20 vision, but she also had a condition called exotropia (where her eye drifted out). Exotropia prevented her from seeing the world in three dimensions and turned out to be the main reason she wasn’t making good eye contact. Don’t automatically assume autism is the culprit causing all your child’s issues. Sometimes a good pair of glasses or the right eye exercises can make all the difference. Many children with autism have sensory motor issues like dysgraphia. It’s important to address these challenges one by one. Maybe your child will need a keyboard or occupational therapy or both. Set your child up to succeed by anticipating and addressing their issues before they become chronic problems. Finally, make sure your child’s psycho ed evaluation is up to date so they start school with all their accommodations in place.
Marguerite Elisofon is a New York City writer and the author of My Picture Perfect Family: What Happens When One Twin Has Autism, a memoir about how her family navigated life with a child on the autistic spectrum before the internet and support groups existed. She also blogs about parenting young adults and disability related issues in The Never Empty Nest. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including: Time, NY Metro Parents Magazine, Ability, and Autism Parenting magazine. Her family’s story has been featured by the NY Post, Fox News, The Daily Mail, and on Jenny McCarthy’s Dirty Sexy Funny radio show. A Vassar graduate, Marguerite was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives with her husband, Howard, in their mostly-empty nest. She is available to speak about a wide variety of issues relating to autism, parenting, and twins. Marguerite also offers private consultations to families struggling with autism issues.
Samantha Elisofon is Marguerite’s daughter and the inspiration behind My Picture Perfect Family. Born with developmental disabilities, she was eventually able to graduate from Pace University, cum laude. She is a gifted singer and actress and starred in the award-winning short film Keep the Change, which will be released in 2017.
Stay tuned for a one on one interview with the author coming soon