Starting school when you have autism

Transitioning works best when Early Intervention, the parents and future school work closely as a team.
Transitioning works best when Early Intervention, the parents and future school work closely as a team. Photo: Getty Images

As kindergarten students of 2013 complete their first school year, a new crop of children are getting ready for their turn at this pivotal milestone.

Excitement with a dash of nerves is par for the course, but for children with disabilities and their parents, starting school can be seriously daunting.

A recent Bureau of Statistics report found 65.9% of children with disabilities are now educated in mainstream classrooms, in conventional schools. This trend has been steadily increasing since the introduction of mainstreaming in the 1970’s. Privately run, Government funded Transition to School programs are geared at ameliorating the shift from pre-school to a curriculum-based education, not only for the children but also for anxious parents.

Fran Larkin, the Principal at Stanmore Public School for over 25 years is a strong believer in the program. “ Transition programs enable children to become familiar with the learning environment, so we’re seeing less tears when they start school.” A longstanding supporter of inclusion, Fran’s experience suggests that not only disabled kids, but their new friends, also benefit from the mix. “Kids accept others at face value when they’re part of their class. Every classroom here has groupings, where the teachers move around, supporting the needs of each child.”

Factoring in the likelihood of these children being developmentally behind their cohort, extra planning and support is crucial to ensure that they, their parents and their future schools are as ready for each other as possible. 

Five-and-a-half-year-old Max, who has autism is making the leap to a mainstream kindergarten class in 2014. His mother Jo looks on as he traces a large letter M, excitedly announcing he’ll soon be wearing a school uniform like his big brother. Six months ago, it was a different story.

Max, who has autism, was so rattled by the idea of moving on from daycare that Jo decided to veto any ‘starting kindy’ talk in their house altogether. “Whenever school was mentioned, he’d shut off or become distressed.” Jo adds, “Routine is a big deal for Max and I think we were all overwhelmed by the enormity of this change and how to approach it.”

Julie Cowmeadow of Pathways Early Intervention in Sydney’s inner west says this is a common refrain from parents faced with this situation. Max attends Julie’s class with four other boys with varying needs. She has been facilitating the Therapy Transition Program (TTP), for six years and explains the program reaches far beyond the child.

“We also integrate the needs of the parents, asking what they want to achieve and work on those goals. Once we show them what their child can do, they’re able to advocate for their child when school begins.” From activities in her class, such as a simple song with actions, Julie explains she is able to glean the learning style and needs of each child, and relay this to their future school.

Providing the school with as much knowledge as possible gives the child’s future teacher a more rounded view of their new student. Teacher and student can hit the ground running. Julie explains, “Transitioning works best when Early Intervention, the parents and future school work closely as a team.”

TTP will continue six months into kindergarten for Max, with Julie helping him and his parents communicate any difficulties to the school and suggest strategies for his teacher.

Emma Pierce, a Transition to School Project Officer from Early Childhood Intervention Australia NSW (ECIA), has been conducting research into transition programs. The findings are being used to establish a Resource Package, which will assist parents and teachers of children with disabilities. Emma explains, “ The Resource Package will offer parents and teachers what’s known as the school readiness equation.” This relates to accurate information regarding:

  • Understanding school options
  • Planning
  • Who can assist: developing a collaborative transition team
  • How to develop effective communication and working relationships with school staff
  • Advocacy skills for parents and carers
  • Helping the new school to learn about your child
  • Practical strategies around preparing your child for school
  • Helping your child to become familiar with their new school
  • Accessing support for the whole family to adjust and adapt to school life (ECIA: Transition to School Project 2013)

The Resource Package will be available online and disseminated through networks of Early Childhood Intervention and Pre-schools, hopefully within the next year.

With the trend towards mainstreaming, Emma has confidence that schools are improving their services. The work ECIA NSW is doing aids inclusion, and expands on the professional development of teachers, who require new skills to deal with diverse classroom needs. “Every child has the right to be included, and attend their local school. Transition programs allow this to become a reality by supporting the child, the family and the school,” says Emma.

As for the success of school readiness programs, statistics are almost impossible to gage. When you’re dealing with different children with different needs, how do you compile an accurate summation? TTP’s Julie believes “It’s extremely difficult to try and prove the success of transitioning as each child is so different. I know it works from over twenty years experience in the field. I know it works from what countless parents and teachers have told me and from speaking at teacher conferences.”

So how will Max cope come next January when he dons his school uniform? His mother is pleased with his progress so far.   “At his school orientation he coped better than I’d imagined, as the children were led through the same activities he’s been doing for six months at TTP.”

Her own trepidation has also lessened. “What I’ve learned through the program has been empowering. It’s also a great comfort knowing his school is aware of his specific needs and is ready for us. At least we now have the confidence to walk in the school gates!”