O'Connor Professional Group (OPG) is a behavioral health organization in New York and Massachusetts that specializes in serving those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Mental Health Conditions, Eating Disorders, Substance Abuse and Addiction and Neurocognitive Disorders. They offer client-centered services using a multidisciplinary approach that accommodates varying individual and family needs and matches their clients' clinical profiles and logistical preferences. OPG also has a blog that provides visitors of their site like clients, families, professionals, and healthcare providers with articles that focus on each of the "conditions" that they specialize in. They posted an article in July titled "Preparing for Back-to-School with Autism: 4 Ways for Parents to Help" to provide parents of children with ASD with actionable tips on how to best get their child ready for the new school year. Back-to-school season is full of excitement, nervousness and joy, but it can also bring about stress, anxiety, fear, and so much more. For children with ASD and their parents, this time can bring about a plethora of extra challenges and concerns and the weight of it all can be exhausting and overwhelming. But, with the right preparation and support, parents can help ease their child into the classroom. The first strategy that OPG mentions is to establish routines. Children with ASD thrive when they have routines and predictability. During the summer, the lack of structure is totally okay, but as the school year begins, implementing those routine practices back into their schedule is very beneficial. You can do this by introducing school-like routines into your child's life gradually. Do things like establish consistent bed times and wake up times to regulate their sleep schedule. You can also incorporate some academically-focused activities into your daily schedules, like writing practice, real-life math practice, reading before bed, etc. If you really want to get them prepared, you can have them practice packing their backpacks, lunchboxes, or getting ready in the morning to get them used to those routines that will be a part of their every day during the school year. You can set up "run throughs" of these tasks to practice what it will be like by using visual schedules or timers to help them become accustomed to the time constraints within the busy schedules that the school year requires. The second tip is to communicate and collaborate. You can do this by reaching out to your child's school and teachers prior to the first day of school to discuss your child's specific needs and/or appropriate accommodations. Share with them any and all relevant information about your child's ASD diagnosis, their strengths, challenges, possible sensory issues and possible strategies that have worked well for you in the past. Doing this will help you establish open lines of communication, which are vital to ensure that your child's needs are being understood and met. Keep these conversation channels open throughout the school year to work together with their teachers to create a supportive learning environment and confidence that the school can best fit your child's needs; consistent dialogue will also help you keep track of your child's progress throughout the year. The next thing you can do is visit the school. If it's possible, arrange a visit with your child to the school before the school year begins as a sense of familiarity can help reduce anxiety for those with ASD. Autism and education inclusivity scholar Paula Kluth call these visits "school previews" and claims they are helpful because they allow the child to see, experience and learn about the school before their first day. They can visit their new classroom, map out their route through the hallways and explore other important areas like the cafeteria, playground, gym and nurse's office. The fourth thing you can do is prepare for sensory challenges. School environments can be pretty overwhelming for children with ASD who experience sensory sensitivities because of the bright lights, commotion, and crowds of students. The best thing you can do is to work with the school to create sensory-friendly accommodations that help your child cope with the new challenges of the school year. Examples of these accommodations include: noise-cancelling headphones, a quiet space for breaks, or fidget toys for improved focus. Beyond just suggesting and having the teacher implement these changes in your child's classroom, check in regularly to make sure your child has the appropriate access to at least one assistive item throughout the day. All in all, no matter how old your child is or what year in school they are, the beginning of the year, while exciting, can be stressful and a bit overwhelming. Be mindful that most children can pick up on their parents' anxiety, so do your best to stay calm and focus on simply preparing for the first day as well as the rest of the year. If you are able, try all or some of these four steps to hopefully make the transition into the school year go a little more smoothly for you and your family. Also, remember that every child is unique and the same "tricks" and strategies will not work for every child, so tailor these ideas in whatever way necessary to best serve your child; you will all be thankful for the positive experiences this year.
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