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Transitioning Back to School During the Pandemic: Considerations for Children on the Spectrum

September 29, 2020
By: Behavioral Innovations

Here we are in October. Usually, most students have returned to school by now. 

However, the school superintendents, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, nurses, parents, everyone involved with education face challenges they have never dealt with before - that is because this is the year of COVID-19. Educators continue to learn new ideas and make further plans to help their students in this unheard-of situation.

When we look inside a classroom, we see several things. Our students with autism are at different ability levels. Giving a child a mask does not guarantee the cover will remain on the face for 30 minutes, let alone the entire school day. Thus s/he must learn how to handle this situation. When the child wants it removed, s/he will do just that. Most children in a regular classroom can understand the meaning of "social distancing" early in their school years. However, children on the spectrum may not understand the term "social" or the word "distancing." It creates another situation the teacher must learn how to handle. So, what will the 2020-21 school year look like for our children on the spectrum? Parents and educators all have hope, and we must endeavor to spread our confidence. The following tips should help all students from preschool through high school. Parents can utilize some recommendations below at home to ensure a smooth transition to the classroom. 

How to Social Distance

It is generally accepted that during indoor settings, students should remain six feet apart from each other. Students can be taught to distance themselves by making it fun. Use boundary markers, brooms, mops, or whatever you can use to make it work. Storybooks are another idea. Read the story about Social Distancing over and over. A video can also be enjoyable. You might want to get your friends together and have them get the point across by causing some surprise the children will enjoy. The most important consideration is to keep everyone safe. Social Distancing can be handled in different ways, depending on how the teacher proceeds. One suggestion is to separate the children, six feet apart, by placing their desk within a tape-marked box on the floor. If the classroom does not allow for all the desks required, it might be possible that several students can participate via distance learning. The students can be on a rotating schedule. The key to success for this set up requires a great deal of effort and adult oversight. However, please remember it can be successful, and you can make it successful!

How to Wear a Mask

The mask should completely cover the nose and mouth with the elastic straps placed behind the ears. Hopefully, each student will learn and understand that the covering is worn to protect each other. Since children with autism have their own opinion about items placed on their bodies and the texture, wearing the mask throughout the day will require constant observation by the adults. Many, if not all the students, will want to remove their cover throughout the day. It is another category where a social story can come in very handy. You might consider starting with one book, and, soon after school has started, add each child's name as a character in the story.

How to Wash Your Hands

Experts suggest that you scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Since most of our students cannot identify that amount of time, why not make a game out of it while also teaching them numerals. You might count down, starting from 20, or making whatever changes are needed for your students to participate actively. It is essential to teach students to wash all parts of their hands. For example, the most used part of the hand, the thumb, is also the least washed.

Do Not Touch

Touching might be one of the most challenging lessons - not to touch our face without first washing our hands. It is not only the face; our students need to know to prevent germs and COVID-19. They need to understand to avoid touching surfaces that are frequently touched by other people. Numerous surfaces, ranging from the computer keyboard to the doorknobs to the light switch, to name a few, should be avoided. Also, students should be encouraged not to touch each other. Children often have one particular friend, and they often want to hug that companion. This should be closely monitored. High fives or holding hands should also be checked. 

Other Important Considerations

Before the school day, one of the adults should take each student's temperature using a heat-sensing thermometer. Additional precautions should include parents reporting any family members having a cough, fever, or a newly diagnosed virus during the last two weeks. Such things as vomiting, diarrhea, or other symptoms should also be reported. Once inside the classroom, each student should frequently use a hand sanitizer to wash their hands. Students should be taught how to clean their backpack, their desk, and be aware of the surfaces on everything they touch.

Our new school year undoubtedly offers challenges we have never faced before. If we all dedicate ourselves to making this work - it will be successful!

Autism Spectrum News provided this thorough information "toolkit" to help children on the spectrum to safely return to school. Please download this handy kit here.  

Original article by: Amy Moore Gaffney, MA, CCC-SLP, published in the Autism Spectrum News here.

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