Monday, August 18, 2014

Choosing a New School for your Child with Asperger's Syndrome

Unless you were lucky enough to enrol your kids in a school which streams kids all the way from kindergarten to college and you remain in the same geographic area throughout these years, you will probably be faced with the prospect of selecting a new school at some point in your child's education.

It's not an easy choice to make under any circumstances but with a child on the autism spectrum, things are a little more complicated.

In this post, I hope to take you through some of the factors that you need to consider;

Qualities of the School
The size of the school is always a difficult choice because on the one hand, you tend to think that your child is less likely to get lost in a smaller school. That the teaching staff will pay more attention to your child and that class sizes will be smaller, allowing more"one-on-one" teaching. There's also the fact that smaller schools aren't so overwhelming for your child. 

Unfortunately though,  smaller schools help your child to be noticed by more than just teachers. Smaller schools seem to attract more bullying issues than larger ones - and they have less places to hide. Smaller schools often have more crowded classrooms than their larger counterparts because there is a lot more pressure on them to accept "just one extra child" in the class.

Larger schools can offer more in terms of lasting friendships because although kids with Autism or Asperger's syndrome can be friends with anyone, "like tends to attract like" and often the best friendships are with other children who are similarly "outcast" or who have similar drives and interests. If you consider that autism rates are currently thought to be around one in eighty-eight and that average class sizes are about  thirty pupils, this means that in a school with two streams (60 kids per year) there is a probability of only one or two kids with autism compared to about three or four in a four stream school. It might not seem like a big deal but in a school catering for six years, this also means the difference between catering for the needs of 12 versus 24 kids with autism.  It means that larger schools are significantly better resourced and that their teaching staff are likely to be much more experienced with autism.

Another point in favour of larger schools is that they often have more diverse subjects, particularly in areas such as woodwork, photography, cookery, and metalwork which require more space and specialised equipment. This means that your child has better chance of finding subjects which pique their special interest. Also, if you child is not academically inclined then a school which has subjects covering trades would be beneficial.  

Different schools have different priorities and focus.  Some schools are very academically focussed which means that if your child is bright, they will flourish.  Of course, you need to bear in mind that schools with this kind of focus are often picky about their students and if you have other children who are less academically inclined, there is a good chance that the school may not accept them. You need to decide whether it is important to you that both of your children to attend the same school. 

Some schools pride themselves on sporting rather than academic achievements.  If you child isn't very sporty, then no matter how academically inclined they are, they may feel out of place.  Some schools are way too focussed on their own reputation and will attempt to suppress the results of children who under-perform. You can usually spot the schools from their reports but sometimes it's not obvious until you get a note home saying that your child doesn't need to sit for a particular exam. 

No matter what, the key is to understand the school, the size, facilities and their teaching aims.

Personal Factors
There are lots of personal factors to consider as well when changing schools;

You need to take into account your child's existing friendships. Your child may not necessarily talk about "friends" but that doesn't mean that your child isn't comfortable with those familiar faces. Before you risk taking these away, you need to assess their value to your child. 

The other side of the coin however is all about "enemies". These are generally bullies or children who simply do not want to associate with your child. If you child feels disturbed by these "enemies" then perhaps a change of schools would be a good thing. 

If your child is transferring to a new school in order to attend higher classes, then presumably the rest of the year-group will be transferring as well. Encourage your child to talk to their friends about where they're transferring to and you should talk to the teachers too.  You'll then be able to decide whether to go to the same school to retain friends or to go to an entirely different school to start afresh. If your child has been the victim of bullies, sometimes starting at a new school in a different area is a very good idea. 

Another thing to consider is whether to send your child to a co-ed or single-gender school.  Some schools are single-gender until the last two years of schooling too. There have been studies which show that girls under-perform in co-ed schools because they're distracted by the boys but that boys over-perform in the same environment.  Depending upon your child's gender and academic disposition, you may want to consider this when selecting a school.  

Of course, the other gender consideration for children with Asperger's syndrome is "relationships". Kids with Aspergers are notoriously poor at initial relationships and have a great deal of difficulty talking to people of different genders. Sending your child to a co-ed school could provide a great deal of social experience which could reduce problems on the dating scene in later years. 

Distance and transport are also important things to consider.  If public transport is involved, you will need to determine whether your child can safely negotiate the trips and ensure that if they miss a train or bus, that they can catch another one. If your child is very impulsive, for example, trains may not be good idea.

Home or Distance Schooling.
I would strongly recommend that parents do not send children with Asperger's syndrome to boarding schools as these make it difficult to monitor them.  Children with Asperger's syndrome need adults that they can trust to put their interests first. In particular, situations such as meltdowns really need parents to intervene on a direct level. Boarding schools tend to deal with these issues internally and will often "cover up" the events.

The other option, home schooling, is particularly suitable for children with Aspergers.  Of course, if you choose to home school, you will need to talk to other parents who are doing this to find out the best methods as surprisingly, they don't involve simply sitting down with books and doing tutorials. Home schooling is very hard work and it's not a commitment that you should undertake without due consideration.

Whatever path you follow, changing schools is not a simple matter. I hope this this post gives you a few things to look out for. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Review: "Autism, What does it mean to me?" by Catherine Faherty

"Autism... what does it mean to me: A workbook about self-awareness and life lessons for Kids with Autism or Asperger's". Revised and expanded 2nd Edition, by Catherine Faherty.

Autism,  what does it mean to me is a hefty quarto-sized volume of nearly 500 pages but luckily, the print is rather large. It is designed as a workbook for children with autism and it seems to contain questions about pretty much everything that you or your developmental pediatrician could want to ask about your child.

It's a stunning piece of work covering a vast array of topics ranging from innermost feelings, sensitivity and creativity through to friends, family, school and general emotional well-being.

Each chapter is clearly marked and starts with an introduction to the topic before it segues into a plethora of questions. After the questions, there is specific advice for parents on the various responses and on the topic in general. 

New to the second edition are sections directed at older children, teens and adults which cover some crucial topics such as participating in the IEP, personal safety and depression.

This isn't a book that you will simply read and leave on the shelf, it's a book that will become a type of journal that you and your child will want to carry and refer to for years to come. Some parts of the book will be more suitable for younger children while others are much more suitable for older ones. It's probable that over time, you'll want to revisit your child's answers to questions to determine if things have changed. 

This is most definitely a book that you should take with you when you visit the therapists or practitioners who are looking after your child.

The questions in this book are cleverly posed to make it easier for your child to respond. While there is certainly space for long answers, the majority of the questions can be answered simply by highlighting the most appropriate multiple choice answers. This makes the book much more approachable to even the most writing adverse children.

Throughout the book there are examples drawn from research, from real life and from autism advocates.  In fact, I was stunned and impressed by the extent to which these advocates have been included. It's something that is sorely missing from most books of this type. Many of the illustrations are done by individuals on the autism spectrum and there are pull-out quotes from people on the spectrum of all ages scattered throughout.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all families with children on the autism spectrum, particularly those with younger children (of about five years of age) who will be able to get the most out of the entire book. This is also a great book for practitioners in autism and special needs related fields as it contains many great mini questionnaires designed to find out how children on the spectrum really feel - and of course, it's full of useful information about how to respond.

Autism, What does it Mean to Me? is available from Future Horizons Publishing.  

It is also available on Amazon but at the time of writing, they appear to only have the first edition.

Honesty clause; I was provided with a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Article: Is Your Child a "Class Clown" to Gain Acceptance

My latest post over at special-ism is about the dangers of being the class clown.  There's nothing wrong with being "class clown" if you play it safe but sometimes it's not so easy to be safe. 

Click here to read the article.

I was a class clown myself for many years and I still have my homework diaries full of fun commentary (and numerous reprimands from my teachers to prove it.  They were always telling me that "you don't have to be anyone else, just be yourself".  I never understood what they were saying - or why they were harping on about it at school but now it makes a bit more sense.

I even have a great written comment from one teacher which says "Gavin spends too much time making futile attempts to amuse his classmates. I would suggest spending more time be spent in the pursuit of knowledge"

(Yes, it has a grammatical error in it because the teacher had read some unsavoury attempts at humour against himself seconds before writing it -- and he was far from calm).