A mother asks: My preschooler has autism. He’s in a summer school program because of concerns about regression. On our first day, he threw a tantrum when we arrived. The teacher said he’d be fine, but the director of the program said that I either had to go in with him, have breakfast with him, and take him to the classroom, or leave right then. I chose to leave, but I’m rattled about the lack of support. The staff is assuming things when they don’t know the full picture. What are your thoughts?
Ellen answers: When I asked you how your child was prepped for the transition to summer school, you told me he “was not prepped at all.” So his meltdown is understandable, and the director’s request that you stay with him on that first day was astute, reasonable and compassionate. When my son faced a similar transition, we visited the classroom prior to the first day so he could meet the teacher and visualize where he would sit, play, and eat. We put together a social story explaining and illustrating what the routine and the environment would be. The story included photos of teachers, toys, playground, classmates, etc. We read the story each evening leading up to the first day of the new situation. Even with all this prep, the teacher thought it would be a good idea if I stayed the first day. I did, sitting in the back of the room and easing out when my son indicated he was ready. Result: a smooth, happy transition for all. We repeated the same type of preparation, in age-appropriate fashion, for transition to elementary and middle school.
It sounds like the unfamiliarity your child faced without any preparation was simply too frightening for him, as it would be for many preschoolers, with or without autism. Making the effort to familiarize your child with any new situation before thrusting him into it takes time, and that can seem hard to come by, I know, when we feel like we’re already stretched to the limit in that regard. But I think you’ll find it’s worth the investment when you find it results in a much better experience for your child and for you, one that helps build his self-confidence for all the many and inevitable transitions to come.