When Your Child With Autism Starts School

Enrolling your autistic child in school is so much different than your general education kiddo. You’ll enter a whole new world of teachers, therapist and acronyms. When my daughter started school I felt like I had just entered a foreign county. There were new people and all kinds of terms I had never heard before. Top that off with a child who may or may not be able to communicate and any autism mom could buckle under the stress of this big step.

Here are a few things you can expect if you have a child with autism starting school:

You will meet tons of people. Once my daughter was flagged by our pediatrician as having developmental delays the ball started rolling with the school district. One phone call earned us visits from a speech therapist, psychologist and physical and occupational therapists. I was overwhelmed that this many people needed to evaluate my 18 month old daughter but basically, if your child has delays in all areas, as most kids with autism do, they need the expertise of different specialists. Maybe it’s just me but I felt like we were under a microscope. Over time I realized we were all on the same team, working together to help my daughter, but in the beginning it was overwhelming to have this many people telling me my daughter hadn’t met her milestones.

Everything starts early. Did you catch the part about my daughter being only 18 months old? School districts, and most experts, feel that early intervention is key. As soon as delays are recognized your child can be enrolled in the school system. Depending on what is offered in your area this could mean weekly home visits, monthly consultations with a speech therapist or mommy and me classes. Every school district starts their services differently but expect them to start way before you thought they would!

Your child will have an IEP. An IEP (or Individualized Education Plan) is the detailed plan that will follow your child every year of their education. You will meet at least once a year to work on your child’s IEP. The plan is intended to guide your child’s year, establishing who will work with them in the school, how often and what they will work on. An IEP even includes details like what type of transportation they will have to and from school and whether they need help eating their lunch or toileting. Those first few IEP meetings can be overwhelming. School personnel conduct them almost daily so don’t feel bad reminding them to slow down or explain something if you don’t understand. This is YOUR child’s education and it’s impossible to grasp every bit of new information from the beginning.

You will feel overwhelmed. It’s overwhelming to have a special needs child to begin with, adding in school increases the stress. If your child cannot communicate you won’t feel that relaxed, free feeling other moms experience when they send their kids off to school. You will be wondering what is happening and how you will know if anything went wrong. There is so much to learn about the special education system and your child’s rights that there is no way you will know it all right off the bat. At some point you will feel educated enough to advocate for your child but it won’t be in Year One.

You will need someone who has been there. Many places have other moms or special education advocates you can connect with to help you wade through the early years. Find one and take advantage of it. Your local branch of the Autism Society is a great place to start. You will always be emotional about your child’s education because it is your child. Having someone to bounce your thoughts and ideas off of who is not emotionally invested in your situation is so helpful. Starting your child in special education can make you feel even more isolated from other moms than you may already. Now is a great time to connect with someone who understands what you’re going through.

Things will change. Just like anything else in life, as soon as you get the hang of things something will change. Your child will regress or a teacher will take a maternity leave, something will happen to mess up the system you’ve worked to create. Try to remember you are at the beginning of your child’s education journey. Conserve your mental energy by not getting too worked up over the small things. I know it’s hard but there will be plenty of hurdles over the years. Your ability to roll with the punches and remain flexible will help you and your child in the long run.

No matter what happens when your child starts school, both of you are taking a huge first step towards the future. It’s going to be tough for both of you at first. Just keep reminding yourself that you’re doing all of this to give your kiddo the best possible outcome. Working together with your child’s teaching and therapy staff is the best way to ensure success. But don’t be afraid to voice your opinions. You’re the parent and no amount of degrees or specialized training can trump the love you have for your child.

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