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Strategies for Surviving Middle School with an Included Child with Autism

By Ann Palmer

I began worrying about my son’s future transition to middle school about the time he first started full inclusion in the third grade. Elementary school was hard enough. How was he going to survive complicated schedules, more difficult academics, and the social pressures so problematic in middle school? Eric did survive, and so did I as his parent. It was by far our hardest years in school, but they were much easier than I imagined they would be. His success through middle school can be attributed to many things, but I am most appreciative to his guidance counselor and teachers for supporting him in so many ways and for allowing me to be a contributing partner in school decisions. Every child with autism is unique, with different strengths and needs, and though these strategies worked for my son, they may not for others.

1. Prepare as early as possible. Start thinking about the organizational and academic issues BEFORE transition to middle school, preferably in 4th or 5th grade. Talk to the guidance counselor at the middle school or to parents of middle school students to find out what skills a student will need when entering middle school. Use this information to prepare IEP goals to work on in the 4th or 5th grade. Invite someone from the middle school to attend the IEP meeting if possible. When having the IEP meeting for the transition to middle school, have the meeting at the middle school, not the elementary school, and make sure a regular education teacher is present. Take your child to tour the school the week before school starts and walk him through his schedule, preferably not at an open house with lots of people, but on an individual tour.

2. Organization issues are often one of the hardest parts of middle school for our kids. Ask the school if your child can have one notebook for all classes rather than a different notebook for each one. This notebook can have subject dividers with pockets between each class section. ( I found them at Office Depot.) One pocket can be designated for things to come home: assignments, notes to parents, etc., and one pocket for things to go to school: homework, notes to teachers, etc. A notebook with a clear cover was also very helpful because a copy of the schedule can be placed in it so that it is visible from the outside of the notebook and can be referred to as needed.

3. Individualize the schedule. Eric’s middle school had a very complicated schedule and no consecutive days had the same time schedule for classes. There would be “block” days where certain classes were extended and certain classes were omitted. To help with this, I made a simple, easy to read schedule that included each day of the week and placed this schedule on the outside of his notebook. You can even color code each class, for example, green for science, blue for English, etc. I even individualized the schedule by including when to go to the locker and when to go to the bathroom. This involves researching when classes are located nearer each other and therefore would allow a stop at the locker or bathroom. Sometimes you can find a teacher willing to allow a student to go to the restroom or locker during class which helps avoid the crowds.

4. Lockers can be adapted to the needs of your child. There was a requirement at our middle school for each student to have a spin dial lock, bought from the school. This kind of lock was too difficult for my son to use and we got them to approve his use of a lock where the combination numbers are rolled in place to open the lock. Of course, you have to give the school office the combination for the lock. The location of the locker can also be important. Try to have the locker located outside of a supportive teacher’s classroom. We found that most of the teachers stand at the door of their classrooms or in the halls between classes and would be able to keep an eye out for problems. Get an outside locker so that there won’t be students on both sides of your child’s locker crowding him or making access to the locker more difficult. Organize the locker if needed. You can buy locker organizers that compartmentalize the locker so things can be found easier. Try the Hold Your Own store for these. Post a locker schedule inside of the door to the locker that the student can refer to. This would include what should be put in the locker at each visit and what to remove from the locker. Between classes at the lockers is a very loud, hurried time and this helps the student who may have trouble with these distractions.

5. Getting homework assignments home with the correct books and notebooks can be a difficult task. To help solve this problem, we asked for an extra set of textbooks for home. You can have this included in the modifications part of the IEP. Or for the student who has trouble with bringing the right books to class, the school textbook can be kept in the classroom in a safe place designated by the teacher and accessible to the student. Highlighted textbooks were also an option at our middle school. They really help students to know what is important in a chapter when studying for a test. Parents can offer to highlight the textbooks if they aren’t already done by the school. At our middle school, the PTA highlighted a certain number of textbooks that were primarily used by LD students but would be very appropriate for some of our kids as well. This too can be put in the IEP.

6. Many of the modifications available to students with learning disabilities can be accessible to autistic students. At our middle school, the LD students were all located on a particular hall with typical kids as well as Academically Gifted students. An extra LD Resource teacher was assigned to this hall and would “float” between classes as needed. This hall was a good placement for Eric because of the extra teacher and because all the teachers were prepared to make modifications for these students. Check to see if your school has a similar situation.

7. Social difficulties can be a problem in middle school. Eric is very passive and withdrawn socially, like some children with autism. On the other hand, many of you may have autistic children who may be very social and want and need social acceptance by their peers. My concerns for Eric were more around his getting “lost in the shuffle” so to speak, and luckily he has never been bothered by not having friends or not being popular. I think he frequently was oblivious to what the other students thought of him or said about him. There were a few students who took an interest in him, or were helpful to him in elementary school. The middle school counselor had the idea to place these students in some of Eric’s classes when possible. Teachers can also suggest possible peer buddies with students who have shown they want to be helpful to your child.

8. One of the hardest social situations for my son in middle school was the Physical Education classes. He hated sports and had motor delays that made sports difficult for him and therefore made him more of a target for other students. The locker room situation was especially difficult and there was little adult supervision there to protect him. After a couple of incidences, we were able to arrange that he wouldn’t go into the locker room at all, and instead would wear appropriate clothes on P.E. days and would leave his backpack in the P.E. teacher’s office. We had him exempted from the 8th grade P.E. requirement. I wrote a letter to the principal and included a letter from a developmental pediatrician who knew my son and was very knowledgeable about autism. We had no problem getting him exempted. I would only suggest this option if your child gets nothing positive from P.E. or suffers anxiety related to it. High School gives you many more options for Physical Education classes that can be used to satisfy the requirements for graduation, such as weight lifting, track, and other more individualized sports. You can also request Adaptive PE help in an IEP.

9. Communication is so important in middle school and unfortunately you will probably find it harder to communicate with your child’s teachers on the middle school and high school levels than in elementary school. Educating seven teachers instead of one about your child and autism is much harder for parents. These teachers may have over a hundred different students each day and finding the time for daily communications home is impossible. I would have a meeting with as many of my son’s teachers as possible before the school year began, often bringing my son in for them to meet. I also met with them as much as possible during the year to find out how things were going. The teachers on each hall function as a team and meet regularly and you may be able to attend some of these meetings. The guidance counselors should be able to help you arrange this. If you have at least one teacher on the team who is especially interested in helping your child, that teacher will probably be willing to keep up a good communication line between the other teachers and report to you about any concerns that may come up. We also found that teachers appreciate having a resource in the school available to them who is knowledgeable about autism, maybe an autism class teacher or another special education teacher, someone they know they can contact if your child has a “meltdown” or if they just have questions about autism.

10. Communication from your child about school is also very important. My son was never one to initiate telling me things that happened at school. I more or less interrogated him when he arrived home, not one of his favorite activities, but one I felt was necessary. If I didn’t ask the right questions, I often wouldn’t find out about important things that happened. After years of these question sessions, Eric has learned what kind of information I need to know and will now (most of the time) tell me things about school. I continue to remind teachers each year that Eric does not report back to me well and that I need for them to let me know about things and not rely on him to relay messages home.

Good luck to all of you who read this and are planning future transitions to middle school for your children. Remember, most typical middle school students have times when they may struggle with staying organized, with making friends, and with dealing with the academic pressure. This is a hard time for all adolescents. The staff at your middle school is prepared for these events and should have strategies to help. Your role as a parent, I believe, is to develop a good working relationship with your child’s school and teachers so that all of you, together, can combine your knowledge and experiences to make the middle school years as successful as possible.

Ann Palmer This page was last updated on Friday January 14th, 2005 © 1995-2005 The University of North Carolina All Rights Reserved

Look for Ann Palmer’s book Realizing the College Dream with Autism or Asperger Syndrome: A Parent’s Guide to Student Success

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