As we enter the warmer months, our thoughts naturally turn to pleasant outdoor activities to take advantage of the enjoyable weather. While this is certainly a refreshing opportunity after a long winter, it does present unique challenges for autistic children as they finish the school year. With that in mind, I would like to offer some safety tips for parents of school-aged autistic children to ensure safety and security for the close of the school year.
During this time of year in schools, the administrators and teachers are focused on several activities you should be aware of and the potential impact on your child. Many state tests are in the process along with the various details of preparing to close out the school year. It is quite a busy time for staff, and it is easy for them to unintentionally overlook the potential concerns an autistic child may face. As the best advocate for your child, this is the time to schedule a brief meeting with both your child’s teacher and an administrator (Principal, Assistant Principal or Dean of Students) to discuss your child. Parents should facilitate a discussion with six points in mind:
- A quick overview of student progress to open the lines of communication and discussion
- A review of Fire Drills/Safety Drills and how you child is monitored and is coping (and any modifications that need to be made)
- A discussion of how your child is monitored on the playground, both to intercede in any potential conflicts (like bullying behavior) as well as situational awareness on the part of staff to watch for wandering/elopement
- School social and academic stressors (testing/changes in routines to accommodate academic schedules/ peer interaction, etc.)
- Monitoring of potential warning signs in your child when under stress (increased echolalia, stimming behaviors, perseveration behaviors) and how school staff can assist in mitigating these to support your child
- A quick review of responses by specific staff to crisis safety should an event occur (who will monitor and direct/redirect your child; what mechanisms are in place to support during and after an event; follow up you expect should an event occur and how you will be specifically notified (i.e. phone call, email, text, etc.)
As a parent/caregiver, be mindful that you know your child best. This is an opportunity to ‘re-educate’ staff to the subtle nuances of your child’s specific challenges in the school setting. Further, this will assist staff in defining your expectations and concerns to head off potential issues prior to an occurrence. This is also a very good time to address what a ‘meltdown’ looks like both from your child’s perspective along with the outward presentation received by staff. Certainly, parents should be mindful of addressing the fact that an autistic person will have several triggers, and will go to great lengths to avoid having an episode in front of their peers and staff. It is important that school staff have a clear understanding that once a meltdown occurs, it must reach its conclusion. There is no intervention that can be employed by staff that will change this during an episode, so the emphasis is to be placed on mitigating prior to an event occurring. Certainly, every eventuality cannot be planned for by school staff, and incidents do occur. Should this happen, be sure to define clearly how staff can assist your child in regaining control. For most instances, having the child quietly and respectfully removed from the setting to a quiet place, monitoring and supporting in quiet tones with very little stimuli will help your child ‘reset’ and then be reintroduced back to the academic setting. Further, staff should be knowledgeable on how to intercept other potential issues from classmates to further a culture of caring and mutual respect. As stated above, and autistic person is the last one to want to have a meltdown occur, as the stress is overwhelming and the social fallout can linger for quite some time.
Beyond a meltdown, also be sure to address wandering/elopement in detail so staff can be on the lookout for this. I would advise parents to be frank and honest about challenges in this area. Your child may have an increased propensity to elope, or possibly this is not an issue that has recently occurred, but regardless, this is a time of year to have increased awareness of this issue any time the child leaves the classroom (class changes, recess, field trip, etc.) Should your child elope, remember to define your clear expectations to staff so your child can be found quickly and kept from harm.
By defining and clarifying your expectations, sharing your concerns and re-educating staff about your child, you increase awareness that is paramount to advocacy for your child.
Scott Fowler is a former education professional and administrator, serving in roles from classrooms to the central office, with over 25 years of public service. Prior to his educational experiences, Scott worked extensively in Special Olympics (Pennsylvania) serving individuals with disabilities. With the birth of his oldest child, Scott soon felt the profound impact of the disability space when his son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at the age of 4. Leveraging his significant professional and personal experiences and skills, Scott retired from public service to work full time as a consultant in the ASD community. During this time, Scott trained school system employees, the hospitality industry, law enforcement, fire/rescue/EMS, and disability service providers to promote and provide awareness of spectrum disorders. Additionally, Scott has been featured in publications such as Education Magazine, and The Organization for Autism Research’s A Journey Through Autism; A Guide to Safety as well as several related articles. Further, Scott has been featured in numerous webinar training series and as a radio guest and subject matter expert on autism.
Scott holds a B.A. and M.Ed. in Education, with several professional endorsements in special education and school administration (K-12) as well as endorsements from The Centers for Disease and Control in Autism Spectrum Disorders.