Let’s be honest: parenting is hard. The number of things a parent needs to think about and consider daily, or even hourly, regarding their children can be immense. Plus, consider how every child is unique with different skills and needs. Mastering the caretaker role for each child is difficult with those factors in mind. Parenting children that are not neurotypical can be even more of a challenge because classic parenting strategies may not apply. So how can parents cope when their child’s needs may require additional attention?
The word accommodate means “to make space.” When we use accommodations for someone, we make space for their needs. Using accommodations in the home for children with autism can be extremely helpful for children and parents. The right accommodations can keep children comfortable and at peace while helping parents more effectively manage their lives.
However, it is essential to remember that every child is unique. Therefore, not all accommodations will work effectively with every child. Just like adjusting expectations and strategies for parenting with neurotypical children, parents should plan to adjust accommodations for their child with autism to suit their child and the family’s needs.
Children with autism can be easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli at home which can be amplified when they transition to the school setting. Schools and classroom teachers can make modifications to the school setting to better accommodate your child’s needs, just as you make accommodations for them at home. These tools can help your child focus in the classroom, become comfortable with their surroundings, and feel at peace with the changes in their daily lives.
Sensory input and sensitivity to stimuli can make a child with autism become easily distracted in the classroom setting. Being intentional with seating arrangements can help mitigate distractions and help your child remain focused and calm. Depending on your child’s specific needs, the teacher may recommend having your child sit close to where they give instructions to help maintain your child’s attention. Or, their seat may need to be away from certain students that provide additional distractions. They may need to be moved away from the heater or the air conditioner if they make too much noise. As your child and teacher get to know each other better, their seat may need to be moved to best suit their needs and aid in their learning.
Stimming behavior is how a child with autism processes sensory input. There are a lot of new noises, sounds, and smells in the school setting, and your child will need to learn to process all that is around them. Teachers allowing a fidget toy may help with this learning curve. Although it is important to remember, there is a fine line between a toy that helps your child process their environment and a toy that distracts other children around them. Work with your child’s teacher to find a toy that is an outlet for your child, but quiet enough so as to not disturb others.
Traditional classroom settings have students sitting at desks all in a row facing the blackboard. New research shows this isn’t an ideal setup for neurotypical children, let alone children on the autism spectrum. Classrooms that allow for flexible seating arrangements are great for children with sensory processing difficulties. Flexible seating could be standing desks with stools as a seating option. It could be chairs that rock or even a yoga ball that can bounce. Students can sit at low tables on the floor, or on couches with coffee tables. There are many types of seating arrangements that can be found in the common classroom. Work with your teacher to find the best seating solution for your child to keep them focused, calm, and at peace.
Providing children with scheduled learning breaks, or spontaneous breaks as needed, is crucial in the classroom setting. Students spend much of their day listening and processing new information. Giving children breaks allows for them to destress and regulate their emotions, before continuing with another task.
Sensory sensitivity can provide all kinds of distractions in the school setting. Unlike at home, it is much harder to adjust the lighting and change the color scheme of a classroom each year. However, it is still important for the teacher to be aware of the types of triggers your child has in regards to stimuli. Noise-canceling headphones can be a wonderful tool if your child is sensitive to extra noise. Or, if your child is overly stimulated by colors, the teacher might recommend moving your child to an area of the classroom without extra posters or decorations. Any information you can share with the teacher about triggering stimulus for your child can be helpful to their teacher.
In addition to all the sensory accommodations and suggestions listed above, it is important to remember that you know your child best. Your child’s teacher will appreciate the insight you can provide into what makes your child tick and what keeps your child feeling calm and comfortable. Communication with your child’s teacher will be key in creating a successful accommodation plan.
Sensory input is when one or more of the senses is stimulated by the environment. Sensitivity to sensory input is common for children with autism. These sensitivities can manifest as discomfort with loud noises, bright colors, fabric choices, or other various stimuli. When there is a sensory overload or sensitivity, children can act out or shut down completely. Utilizing sensory accommodations in the home can help keep children calm and at peace with their home environment.
Creating an area or room in your home dedicated to your child’s sensory needs can be really helpful. A sensory room gives them a safe space to calm down and refocus from other stimuli when they need it. You can add sensory materials that best suit your child’s needs. Some items to consider? A swing, slide, ball pit, climbing equipment for gross motor skills, and bins of smaller sensory items kept in an orderly, organized manner.
Some individuals with autism see colors with more intensity than others, which can be overwhelming. Consider decorating your home with muted colors and a monochromatic color scheme to avoid overstimulation.
Noises can be very distressing to individuals with autism. They have a heightened awareness of sounds, and often sounds that seem normal to you can cause them discomfort. Though it is not possible to shield your child from every sound that bothers them, there are some things you can do to mitigate the stressors.
First, consider carpet over hardwood flooring, or invest in some rugs. If possible, add additional sound-absorbing insulation to your child’s bedroom to help block out excess noise at night. Keep noise-canceling headphones handy for your child to use when they become overstimulated.
Finally, try to schedule “quiet breaks” for your child, where you move them to a space with limited additional noise.
Bright, fluorescent lighting can be very bothersome to a child with autism. Fluorescent bulbs, in particular, also flicker slightly, which can also cause additional stress. Consider using natural lighting in your home whenever possible to provide a more calming environment.
Another effective accommodation is to streamline your space and schedule as much as possible. Children with autism tend to thrive on routine and knowing what to expect. The chaos that clutter causes can be very overstimulating. Keeping your home organized and streamlined helps not only your child but can also help the stress of other family members. Additionally, keeping a schedule as consistent as possible for your child can help them feel secure, calm, and prepared.
Scent sensitivity is also a common condition for someone with autism. Like bright lights or loud noises, a strong scent can trigger a reaction. Take a peek at the products you are using in your home. Is there a strong odor, even a pleasant one? Consider using low to no odor products for cleaning, and take note if your child reacts negatively to certain perfumes and hand soaps.
The goal of language accommodations in the classroom is to help your child grow in their communication skills so that they can be as successful as their neurotypical peers.
Sarcasm can be very confusing for a child with autism, as they may take language very literally. If you have found this to be the case with your child at home, share this information immediately with your child’s teacher. Limiting sarcasm in the classroom (both from the teacher and other students) can help ease confusion and hurt feelings.
Again, children with autism tend to take language at face value, and figurative language in everyday speech can be very confusing for them. As they study language in the classroom, they will be directly taught these tools for imagery in their reading and writing, but it may still be confusing for them in speech. Directly sharing the meaning of these techniques when using them will help avoid confusion and help students with autism recognize them when they are being used.
The teacher will be a new adult with expectations for your child. One great accommodation for your child’s teacher as they develop a relationship with your child is utilizing frequent check-ins. Quietly connecting with your child after whole group instructions have been given is a great way for them to assess how well your child is coping with different teaching techniques. Does your child need instructions repeated to them? This is a great time to do it. Does your child need to be redirected? A quiet check-in can put them back on track. Does your child need the instructions broken down even further? The teacher will be able to do so during these moments.
There are all different types of learners in the classroom setting, and teachers are well-equipped with strategies for meeting the needs of each of them. One common accommodation for children with autism is to provide them with written notes. Rather than having your student rely on auditory learning only, giving them written notes can help them follow along with discussions and refer back if they have lost focus. This is a common accommodation for students since many children are not solely auditory learners.
Written expression can be difficult for students on the autism spectrum. If the assessment isn’t focused on their writing abilities, but rather on other content, verbal testing is a great way for your child to show what they know. They may feel overwhelmed by the amount of writing on a test or nervous about the ticking clock, and therefore, not perform as well as they could. Accommodating these stressors can help your child share what they have actually learned about the concept without worrying about the method of testing.
Using voice-to-text software is another great modification if your child is struggling with written expression. As long as the written expression isn’t itself being evaluated, using voice-to-text is a great tool to see what your child actually knows about a topic without adding the stress of writing it out. Of course, if your child struggles with verbal language, this would not be the best accommodation. Remember, each accommodation is only a suggestion of things to try to meet the individual needs of your child.
Giving students with autism extended time to respond to a question is another great modification. Your child may need extended time to process information and questions. Continual prompting or impatience can add stress. Gentle guidance and extended time for response is a great way to accommodate delayed response times.
Autism affects language development, including both verbal and nonverbal communication skills. For example, your child may have delayed speech, trouble making eye contact, difficulty interpreting your words, or may not understand or know how to use hand gestures appropriately. Using accommodations for language skills at home can help your child practice their communication skills with you to feel more confident communicating in public spaces.
It might take longer for your child to process language, and one great accommodation to use at home is to allow them the time they need to respond. Further prompting is okay, but try to avoid making them feel rushed to give you a response.
Your child may need more dedicated practice time for communication skills, as they may not come naturally to them. It is helpful, for example, to model appropriate responses to common social questions for your child (“How are you?” “I am doing well, how are you?”) and then help them practice this skill both at home and in public spaces. Make sure to use slow, clear speech and stick with a vocabulary that is appropriate for your child’s language acquisition.
The goal of behavioral modifications is to make adjustments in the classroom and social settings so that your child can be as successful as they can be. Your child’s behavioral plan will be unique to their social skills and behavioral needs, and the modifications can be constantly adjusted to better suit your child.
Positive reinforcement can be a great parenting tool; it can be a wonderful classroom management tool as well. Positive reinforcement gives reward (encouraging language, a high-five, or a small tangible reward) to behaviors that we want to see again. This puts the focus on what the student is doing well and not on what is going poorly. This keeps the environment lighter and more positive, but also makes it more likely for the behaviors to be repeated in the future. This behavioral training can be critical in the classroom setting for children with autism as they are not only learning new academics but also learning to interact with peers and new adults.
Working in groups in a classroom is a common instructional method, and teachers are very aware of how the dynamics of certain groups can affect student outcomes and learning. Groupings are often done very intentionally so that students are paired with others that will promote their learning. Teachers will likely pick students to work in a group with your child that they feel will be the best fit. Whether it is because he or she has seen a connection between your child and another student, or someone has displayed necessary qualities-awareness, patience, understanding, or resiliency-the teacher will be taking all of this into consideration when making student pairings.
You should work with your child’s teacher on a plan for your child when they become out of sorts. Share with the teacher the ways you calm your child when they display agitation. The school will put together a plan on the IEP for these situations, but your input is crucial. What warning signs does your child give when they are on the verge of a meltdown? Does your child need to retreat to a quiet space when they become overwhelmed? Does your child do well with a walk when they feel agitated? Share what you have discovered with the staff and help them develop a plan for the classroom setting.
Children with autism tend to do well with structure and schedules. They like knowing what to expect and what is expected of them. Another great accommodation for the classroom is having the teacher share with your child what is expected of them during the more unstructured time of the day. Lunch and recess may bring on anxiety because they are not always consistent, but having a dialogue of expectations can help ease the stress.
It cannot be emphasized enough how valuable teacher check-ins can be both with you and your child. Accommodations will need to change as your child learns and grows in the classroom. Creating a good relationship with your child’s teacher will help keep the dialogue open and strong about your child’s changing social needs.
The goal of many accommodations is to help children achieve the same successes as their peers by removing barriers to that success and making room for their specific needs. Therefore, it is important to learn what your child needs or what needs to be removed for them to achieve their goals. Whether it's learning a basic hygiene skill or sitting at a desk at school, your child may need some accommodations for their behaviors to be successful.
Many children with autism rely on consistency, routine, and scheduling. Changes to their routine can be overwhelming and cause frustration. Consider explaining any changes to their typical schedule before it happens to help avoid adverse reactions to the change.
Stimming is defined as a repetitive motion or behavior performed to help process stimuli or emotions. Although the behavior may appear to be strange, try to allow stimming or the use of a fidget toy when possible. These behaviors are calming to your child and help them to process the world around them.
Using positive reinforcements can be a very effective parenting tool for all children. Positive reinforcement will reinforce the behaviors that your child is doing correctly, rather than focus on what your child is doing wrong. Positive reinforcement can look like encouragement, kind words, enthusiasm, or even a small reward. From this type of reinforcement, it becomes more likely that your child will repeat the positive behavior that you are after.
As a parent, you know your child very well, but you can learn more about your child’s needs, likes, and dislikes each day. Consider taking time to focus on what triggers your child into meltdown mode. Is it a certain activity? Is it transitions from one task to another? Is it particular sounds? And even when you know exactly what triggers your child, sometimes meltdowns come out of nowhere, and you can just feel it bubbling under the surface. Either way, put together a plan for helping to calm your child when a meltdown begins. You can consider investing in a weighted blanket which is a great sensory tool to calm children when they feel out of sorts. Or, if you have a sensory space in your home, try removing your child from their current activity, and giving them time to destress in their safe zone.
The skills of self-regulation and control are required for executive function. Students with autism will likely need accommodations to help them self-regulate in the classroom setting.
One great accommodation for students in the classroom setting is to break down big assignments into chunks. Too much information and too many requirements at once can be overwhelming and cause students to want to shut down. Taking time to break the big assignments into smaller assignments can ease the stress and increase cooperation.
Noise-canceling headphones are a wonderful tool for keeping a child with autism on track in the classroom. If your child is easily distracted by noise, these headphones can help them maintain the control they need to learn in the classroom environment.
Students with autism may need the accommodation of extended due dates or extended time on assessments. Often students with autism need additional time to process information and the pressure of time constraints can make students shut down. The modification of extra time can ease stress and increase cooperation.
As has been mentioned, students with autism will thrive when there is consistency. Disruptions to schedules can be overwhelming and cause stress. Teachers can accommodate this need for consistency by keeping the classroom routine intact as much as possible, but also giving forewarning to changes as much as they can.
At times, the traditional classroom setting may feel too overwhelming for your student. Having access to a resource room when they feel agitated can help them find the calm that they need to resume learning in the traditional classroom setting.
Executive function is the set of skills that are required for self-regulation and control. These skills help children make and meet goals for everyday life. Children with autism may need accommodations so that they can acquire this skill set and be successful at home and out in the world.
As explained earlier, your child will thrive on routine and knowing what to expect and what is expected from them. Changes in their routine can be overwhelming and can lead to meltdowns. Though it isn’t possible to always keep to the exact same schedule every day, try to avoid too many changes when you can. If a change is necessary and you know about it in advance, make sure to give your child plenty of notice of the disruption.
As you are working with your child on different skill sets, such as getting dressed or bedtime routines, consider breaking these big jobs into smaller jobs. Instead of telling your child to get dressed for the day, ask them to pick out a shirt, and then ask them to put it on. Breaking jobs up will seem less overwhelming to your child, and they will be more likely to remain calm and cooperative.
Abrupt endings to activity can also cause distress. Consider giving your child a “5-minute warning” before changing activities so that they have ample time to process that a change is about to occur.
The short answer is: yes! Your children will need accommodations from you, their primary caregiver, and from the other adults in their life. When your child begins their schooling, the staff will want to work with you to understand what accommodations have already worked for your child and make a plan for accommodations at school.
They may use a lot of the accommodations that you use at home, and will likely suggest others that may help your child’s learning in the classroom. They may suggest preferential seating, written and oral instructions, oral testing, or extra time on assignments. Knowing your child’s response to accommodations at home will help them determine what may or may not work well in the classroom setting. Your input will be incredibly helpful in setting up that initial plan.
Schools will develop a team to create an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for your child, including learning accommodations. This team will comprise of key school staff members and you, the parents. The team will work together to formulate the best plan to help your child thrive in the school setting.
It is important to remember that every child is unique, and accommodations are not one-size-fits-all. It is important to try different techniques to help your child succeed but be flexible if an accommodation doesn’t seem to be a good fit. This is true in the school setting as well. IEPs are scheduled to be evaluated annually, but parents can request an evaluation at any point in time.
Remember, you are your child’s best advocate; if something doesn’t appear to be working, it is okay to ask for a change. Additionally, teachers are on your side. They want to help your child grow and thrive and will be willing to hear your concerns.
We all know it is hard to be different in school, and many parents worry about their child with autism making friends. Since autism can impede social development, it is crucial to work with your child directly on their social skills.
Explain what facial expressions are and what body language means, and then show specific examples. Discuss what it means to be a friend and how friendships work with your child. Share books on the topic. Invite friends over to play and work on social skills together. Social skills are skills like any other, so model and practice as much as possible.
Finally, allow your child to share their interests and to have fun!