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Summer Slide

Happy Summer!

By now, many students are enjoying summer vacation. This time of year is often synonymous with no alarm clocks, a relaxed schedule, hanging out at the pool, and no school work. However, for kids on the spectrum, summer vacation can come with anxiety, spikes in problematic behaviors, and academic and social regression. Here we will give some ideas to help with what some call “The Summer Slide”.

 Students on the autism spectrum thrive on routine. For nine months out of the year, these students follow a predictable schedule. They are told when to get up, when to get dressed, when to get in the car or on the bus. Once at school, students have a fairly set schedule, without many questions as to what their days will look like. Sure, Tuesdays may be different from Monday due to a different Special class, or maybe there is an assembly, but besides those small changes, their days are fairly the same. Summertime often comes with a more relaxed schedule, which lends itself to less predictability. Summer is a time when parents often see behaviors that had all but disappeared rear their heads again. Here are a few ways to help an anxious student through the summertime uncertainty:

Make a schedule–This does not mean that your day has to be (or should be!) planned out to the minute. Giving your child a general overview of the day will be extremely helpful for most. More often than not, our students on the spectrum rely, at least to some extent, on visuals and visual cues. Depending on age and ability, this can be pictures of what will be happening during the day, a written list of the day’s activities, or simply talking through the day’s events in the morning and then reminding your child throughout the day. This is especially important if you know you are going somewhere or doing something that causes a higher level of anxiety for your child. Using language that their teachers use, such as First, Then statements can help, too!

Give some warning time before a transition- Just as important as having a schedule is letting your child know how much time they have left of something, especially when they are engaged in a highly preferred activity. Letting your child know they have five minutes left of a preferred activity may help with transitioning away from something they are engaged in. Setting a timer and then following through with the direction may be hard fought against at first, but remaining consistent will help your child know that when you say it is time to move on, that’s what they need to do.

Give your child choices- This might not mean what you think it means! Oftentimes, students on the autism spectrum are anxious because they do not have control of the situation. For instance, if your child is off schedule or is just grumpy and is having a hard time getting dressed in the morning, laying out two parent-approved outfits and letting them choose might get you farther than insisting they wear the blue shirt with red shorts. If you have two places to go and the order doesn’t matter, letting your child choose where to go first can lead to a smoother transition from home. Your child isn’t happy with the food on their plate? Giving the option of which to take a bite of first may get some of that food you just spent an hour making into their belly.

Now that we have looked at some ways that your child’s behavioral progress can remain steady over the summer, let’s think about all that academic progress they made over the year. Although we know that ASD is a social disorder, we also understand that it can impact learning. Many students with autism have to work significantly harder than their typically developing peers to retain the same information. Three months off from learning can lead to several months of academic regression (loss of skill). Here are some things you can do to help your student stay on track for the following school year:

Read, read, read!- Have your student read, read to them, and let them see you read. Most libraries offer a summer reading program, free of charge, for students and adults. Who doesn’t like to get prizes for reading? You could also start an in house book club where you read the same book your child is reading and discuss the book together. Asking your child wh- questions about what they have read or what you have read to them helps build on their comprehension skills. Don’t worry too much if your child wants to read books that seem too easy or only wants to read graphic novels. Any reading is good reading!

Check your student’s backpack- Anyone here guilty of hanging up the backpack on the last day of school and then forgetting about it (and the contents- including that last day of school lunch!) until the week before the next school year starts? If you are, you are not alone! A lot of teachers are now sending home packets of optional work that can be done throughout the summer to stay on top of skills learned over the course of the past year. Our teachers at Oakstone Academy are adept at sending home work that matches the academic ability of each student, rather than printing an “INSERT GRADE LEVEL HERE” packet and sending it home with everyone. As students get older, there may even be assigned work to complete for the next year. Checking for that now will save everyone a headache the night before school starts!

Practice writing over the summer- Have a preschool student who is just learning that what comes from the pencil has more meaning than just scribbles? Play tic-tac-toe to practice the pre-writing skills of straight and curved lines. Have a young learner who just recently learned to sound out words? Have them help write the grocery list. It may take longer, but they will have a sense of ownership and get some practice writing- and may not grumble as much when having to leave their video game to go with you to the grocery store. Older writers can write letters or emails to grandma and grandpa, keep a summer journal, or write a response about the book they are reading. If writing by hand is stressful, working on typing skills can really help. Typing.com is a great free resource to teach typing.

Without a doubt, one of the biggest deficits our students on the spectrum encounter is the social aspect of the disorder. When students are immersed in a social environment, like at Oakstone Academy, we see them make eye contact, take turns, communicate (either verbally or through a communication device), and make friends. With summer comes fewer opportunities for students to be immersed in a structured social setting, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for them to continue to practice and hone those social skills they’ve worked so hard on throughout the school year. Here are some ideas to keep your child practice important social skills over the summer:

Go to the local park or playground- While we know this can be overwhelming for some parents of children on the spectrum, especially if their student is prone to negative behaviors when in unfamiliar settings, the playground is a great place to practice a plethora of social skills. At the playground, students can practice turn-taking, waiting, sharing, having conversations, making requests, the list goes on! If you are worried that your child will have a meltdown, go when there are less people or make it a playdate with a classmate. 

Go to story time at the library- Remember the library that offers a free summer reading program? It’s likely that they also offer different story times, free for families to come to. This is a great place to meet new friends and the story times are often structured so that they have the same schedule each time. They often start with a little movement activity, move on to the stories, and then some time to play at the end.

Join your school’s online parent group- Several school parent groups have social media pages where playdates are arranged. Parents of students on the spectrum and those with other special needs often report feeling isolated from other parents who don’t understand the struggles their students face. Who better to get together with than parents who get your child’s struggles? The kids can play and the parents can talk, without fear of judgement if a meltdown occurs.

Look into summer programming at your school- Many schools offer summer social activities. These programs are often more laid back than the regular school day, but still offer the structure your student thrives off of, while keeping your student engaged in social situations.

We hope these tips help you to avoid “The Summer Slide” and lead to a great summer with your student!

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Teacher Appreciation in the time of Remote Learning

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week during Remote Learning due to COVID-19, and many families have a new appreciation for their children’s teachers. We are seeing them rise to an unimagined challenge. Here at Autism Immersed, we want to share a tribute to our amazing immersion teachers of all grades. 

Teaching in Academic and Social Immersion classrooms is not for everyone, but for the people who thrive in this setting, they truly can’t imagine being anywhere else. Julie, a 16 year veteran of the model, comments that “My favorite part of teaching immersion is bearing witness to the very natural interactions that occur between our ASD students and their neurotypical peers.  I have seen students helping each other in so many ways, not just academically, but on an interpersonal level as well.” Many teachers echo this sentiment. As Monica, an elementary teacher, added “there is something special about seeing both the peers and kids on the spectrum benefit socially and academically from being in the same classroom.” Teachers who thrive in this model, like Courtney, enjoy a challenge: “one of my favorite parts is working through difficult behaviors so that my students with ASD can be fully immersed. I love to brainstorm different strategies that I can employ to help my students to self-monitor, control their behavior, and remain with the group.” 

From preschool through high school, the same refrain is heard. Teachers love the interactions, the opportunities, and the connection with students and their families, as well as opportunities to build and foster relationships between all types of students. As high school teacher Sara says, a special pleasure that comes from “teaching immersion is the conversations between all the students and seeing the friendships and enjoyment these students have with being around each other and getting to interact with each other and their teachers.” Preschool teacher Michelle adds, “Another one of my favorite parts of teaching immersion is working with young children and their whole family.  I enjoy being a supportive resource for not only my students but for their families as well.

Teachers are trying hard to provide high quality instruction during Remote Learning for all of their students. For immersion teachers, this includes keeping core components of their programming the same to provide consistency and predictability for all students, but especially those with ASD. Vince teaches high school finance and he emphasizes, “The key in distance learning is laying out the requirements and establishing the rules of the road so to speak.” Once routines are established and students feel comfortable, teachers turn to ways to make the curriculum engaging as they teach. Julie added, “I try to keep the content alive right now by having Google Meet sessions so we can ‘see’ each other. I am also trying to provide interesting and fun material for the students to learn from- i.e. who doesn’t like to take a camera ride through the digestive system?! Thank you Youtube!” Lizeth has found that it is crucial with Remote Learning to  “keep positive encouragement during live lessons and praise their work.” Even our youngest learners are staying engaged in school, thanks to committed and caring teachers. Michelle, who teaches toddlers in immersion commented, “I’m hosting a weekly Preschool 1 Meet and Greet on Google Meet so children have the opportunity to see each other while we all learn from home together.  Our young learners become so excited when they see their friends and teachers on the screen and those smiles are contagious!” No matter what the content, Immersion teachers seem united in one thing: we teach CHILDREN. 

These trying times are not without challenges for our immersion teachers. That being said, even their challenges reflect the love and commitment they have for students and families. “The immersion model is based on students with and without disabilities interacting. Since we can’t interact in person it has definitely been challenging to get the social interaction between the students. We are so lucky to have technology, Google classroom, and the internet during this time.” Monica shows how academics and social development are mutually included by our teachers as core components of the curriculum. One does not come without the other. Long time immersion teacher Kristen adds, “Though Google classroom is a tool to visually stay connected to the kids, I feel there is an element of excitement that is missing. I feel this element comes from the natural conversations and connections that are made in the classroom setting that are difficult to replicate in a virtual way.” Our teachers miss the in-person time spent with each child they teach. 

Our teachers also keep in mind how challenging this type of learning is for all students, but they also look at those challenges as temporary obstacles that need to be dealt with, not permanent barriers. Courtney sums things up for many of our teachers by saying, “As hard as this is, I keep reminding myself that our students with ASD have had to overcome challenges for their entire lives. This is just one more. If my students who thrive on predictability and routine can get through this unpredictable and non-routine time, then so can I. I am so incredibly proud of how my students are handling this situation.”  Similarly, we are incredibly proud of how our teachers have handled this as well. 

Jan Moore, a veteran speech therapist who has worked in immersion settings for 12 years, may have said it best: “the most gratifying part I heard from students themselves. They want to go back. The virtual community has worked, but they want it all now. They miss the classes, activities, and friendships. They miss lunch and recess and field trips. They might not have realized they loved their school before, but they know it now. Many students with ASD say they don’t really want friends…not so here. Virtual learning has worked in this time of staying at home, but it’s a temporary solution. Oakstone has done virtual learning well…but it does real life learning even better. To a speech therapist that loves to address social competency, this is beautiful. Congratulations Oakstone. This is a testimony of who you are. We are all grateful.”

We are all grateful for our teacher, therapists, classroom assistants and staff who are keeping the spirit of Academic and Social Immersion alive, even in the most trying times. We appreciate you every day.

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Remote Education: Immersion is Thriving!

Covid-19 can’t stop immersion!

Academic and Social Immersion is a successful model for teaching children with autism spectrum disorder and their neurotypical peers. We have the hard data that shows academic growth, behavioral improvements, and increased social engagement. But what happens when you remove the structure of a supportive school environment and the immediate support of teachers? What does a school disruption (like we have never seen before) mean for our students in an immersion model? Does the whole thing fall apart?

No. 

It absolutely does not fall apart. Immersion is thriving. 

How do I know? I listen to the parents, teachers, and students themselves. I can hear in the stories coming out of this remote learning environment that Academic and Social Immersion has worked its way into the hearts and minds of our community: teachers, parents, and most importantly children. Let me share a few of these stories with you. 

Many of our teachers have been hosting class via the ZOOM teleconferecing website. What thrills and amazes them is how many times the class “hijacks” the session to chat and be social. They miss each other and want to be together. If this was simply a case of a friend missing a friend, they could Facetime or something more private at home. What we are seeing time and again is the WHOLE class wanting to stay in touch and connected. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

Teachers have been trying to reach out and meet the needs of all students. Another student with ASD asked if the group could meet for lunch on ZOOM to just hang out. Their needs are less about help with a math problem or editing a paper and more about being connected with their group. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

A mother of a second grade peer commented that most of the second grade is hanging out virtually on the Messenger app. One student needs his mom to be his voice to help him interact. Her daughter and the rest of the class are “not bothered by this because they want him included. They are already oriented to the different ways people communicate.” The mother added, “they include everyone because the important thing is that they can see and hear one another–perhaps not in person, but in a familiar way. Everyone is important to the group.” THIS IS IMMERSION

Amy, the mom of one of our kindergarten students with ASD, shared the following: “Calin usually only acknowledges friends if they play his games on his terms, which is always physical play (chasing/running/wrestling). Otherwise he has no interest in what friends are doing.  He doesn’t seem to mind this, resulting in ‘no real friends’ at all, but it breaks my heart. Will there be a day he is sad that he has no friends? Will he ever ask for a play date or sleepover? Will he have a best friend like I did growing up? Is he liked? Do kids want to play him or are they annoyed by him? All these questions truly break my heart when I consider the possible answers.”  These feelings are very common among the parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. In wanting the best for our children, we want them to have the kinds of friendships and social experiences that we had and cherish. 

Recently, one of Calin’s classmates reached out to Calin via Facebook Messenger Kids, which many students are using to stay connected.  Amy continues, “Eleanor has called Calin several times prior and I would ask him if he would like to talk to her and he would say “no thanks, I’m fine” and run away.  But she kept calling, so I finally told him he HAD to talk to her. He begrudgingly sat down. They both said hello to each other with me prompting Calin to use her name.   Eleanor didn’t skip a beat and immediately started playing with filters on the messenger app that turn your face into something else like a cat/tiger/hamburger/etc.  He just laughed hysterically each time she changed her face and Eleanor would say “isn’t that funny, Calin?!” He would just laugh and laugh and ask her verbally for more. 

Then she asked him to play a game with her and proceeded to start the game. I was a nervous wreck, thinking “He’s never done this before. Will he understand and be able to participate? Will she get frustrated if he doesn’t want to play and hang up? Will he be mean and run away? Will she say to me, “why won’t he talk to me?” Will this end like similar situations with the kids we see at playgrounds?”  They went back and forth doing this with almost no prompting from me to wait his turn. (At the end of the game)… she finally selected the snake and lost. At first he teased her with that ‘nana nana boo boo’ that we all know. Nervously, I asked him to be nice and tell her good game, so he quickly shouted “good game!!” With a smile on her face, Eleanor immediately began another game with him. This time they both had faces like fish and had to use their mouths to catch as many fish as they could.  Again he interacted successfully the entire time. There were moments throughout that he would say “all done, no more talk” and push the phone in my direction. I would start to say something about politely saying goodbye to his friend, but Eleanor would just switch it up and catch his eye with a new game or funny face, and he would be sucked right back in laughing and playing with her again. Eventually he said he was done and actually got up and walked away, so I had him say goodbye and I thanked Eleanor and we hung up. I was almost in tears. ”  

Eleanor showed me that Calin IS liked and his friends DO want to play with him and they will gladly play the way that they know Calin can be successful in order to spend some time with him. Truly made heart so happy and grateful for our school community. 

 Calin is not the only one to benefit from this interaction. The love, patience, and understanding shown by Eleanor is a gift to Calin, but also a gift to herself. She has learned to accept and love people and to meet people where they are. Most importantly, she is being a good friend. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

These trying times may be filled with separations. They may be affecting how we learn and how we work and even how we spend time together. However, the power of being part of a social group and the drive to include everyone in your community because everyone is important is going strong in our children. THIS IS IMMERSION. 

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Remote Education: Autism Immersed podcast

Season 2, Episode 4

Ideas for continuing education during the COVID-19 virus quaratine with a particular eye to educating children with autism spectrum disorder when they are away from their peers and teachers.

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Helpful Hints for Home #1

Working with children with autism spectrum disorder while at home

Thanks a lot, COVID-19!

Apparently the way to get our blog back up and running is to lock everyone in their homes!  Just kidding! Take care of yourselves: wash your hands, practice social distancing, and stay connected with those you love to help take care of each other. 

We at Autism Immersed have been up to some exciting changes in our products and services, but this COVID-19 health emergency has revealed some interesting and encouraging truths about our teachers and our students. In the challenges we are all facing and the separations we are enduring, we also are learning just how powerful the Academic and Social Immersion Model is, not only in educating children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their neurotypical peers, but also in building a community of teachers, therapists, children, and families. With that in mind, this blog series (Helpful HInts for Home) will address a few different aspects of schooling from home as well as offer some tips to those of you working as well. Today, we would like to offer some general tips for schooling from home for our students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Please don’t think you need to do everything on this list at once–that would be overwhelming. Pick an area that you think would enhance Distance Learning for your and for your child and start there. As always, your Oakstone Academy teachers are ready to support you if you need help or more ideas. Don’t be afriad to reach out!

Parents are by far the experts on their children, and this holds true for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. That being said, those of us who teach children with autism spectrum disorders have a collection of best practices based on our experience successfully educating our students. While home will never be school (and should not be expected to be), using some of these tried and true strategies at home could make this interruption to our school routine less disruptive to your child’s education and keep things happier at home. 

#1: Structure

One tried and true practice in teaching students on the autism spectrum is to have a consistent structure available. Many behaviors that interfere with learning are a sign of anxiety or confusion with what is going on. In the classroom, structure is offered with schedules and routines. This same idea of structure can carry over to the home, though in a more manageable way for families. Some tips on adding structure and routine to your home environment include

  • Designate a spot at home for learning. This might be a desk or a dining room table. It should be a spot that has fewer distractions (television, toys). The mom who set up the work stations above knew her kids would need some space between them to accomplish their work. You can also have a schedule or daily rotation for use of preferred work areas/equipment.
  • Use a list to help track what tasks need to be done. This list can be written on paper or a dry erase board, drawn on notecards, or created online. Many of our Intervention Specialists are helping parents customize a to-do list, like the ones pictured here. Visuals are much more powerful than verbal instructions for children with ASD, as they are easier for them to process and takes away ambiguity. 
  • A weekly calendar could also help your child. They are used to certain tasks on certain days, with some “home days”. Marking off a calendar to show when they have school work and when they don’t can help children with ASD cope with the many changes this pandemic has brought into our lives. 
  • Using a Social Immersion Plan (SIP) about COVID-19 and the changes it has brought can help explain changes and reassure students, making a big difference in attitudes and anxiety. 
  • Set times to work on tasks. If work is done early, great! If work is not done, STOP ANYWAY. You can always have 1 item on your to-do list as “catch up time” to provide a time for your child to finish anything that was dragging too long. 
  • Don’t end your structure with just the tasks that are coming home from school to complete. Extend this to things like screen time, outdoor time, physical activity, and creative time. If you have 1 hour of structure and then 12 hours of a free for all, the structure will feel more difficult for your child. 
  • Give kids some choices about activities they would like to tackle first, giving them some degree of control over tasks and making them feel part of the structure of the day. 

#2 Expectations

High expectations are key to the success of children with autism spectrum disorder in the immersion classroom. Children rise to our belief in them. If you as the parent expect that this school at home is going to be a disaster, it probably will be. If you expect that it will be hard, but your child CAN do it, it probably will be as well. Ask your child to share some of the rules he or she follows at school and then use those as a basis to make some expectations for school time at home. 

  • Choose 3-5 general expectations to include. These could relate to physical behaviors, work completion, or attitudes. 
  • Phrase them in both the positive and negative forms for clarity. For example, “Use kind hands and words. NO fighting” could be one. “Try your best: don’t give up!” could be another.
  • Add a visual representation for each, whether it is a sketch, a piece of clip art, or even a drawing made by your child. 
  • Keep expectations realistic for the age of your child. Reach out to teachers or online resources to get some ideas for the amount of time or work your child should be able to complete. 
  • Make school an expectation of the day. While younger children may not have the same level of school work as the first grader or middle schooler, be sure the environment at home is consistent with learning. Having a younger sibling work on crafts, workbooks, or learning-oriented computer games will keep everyone in the family focused on learning.

#3 Accountability

Accountability goes hand in hand with high expectations for all children, but especially for children with ASD.  When most people hear the word “consequence,” they assume negative consequences. However, a consequence is simply something that results from an action. Consequences can be positive or negative. Consequences are what hold us accountable for our actions. If we provide structure and high expectations for our learners, we also have to follow through on those expectations. A few tips on accountability:

  • Don’t make threats or promises that you are unwilling or unable to follow through on. You aren’t going to throw away your television or cancel summer, so don’t threaten that. 
  • Set up small manageable positive consequences for finishing work. One parent is currently giving one point each for a wide variety of tasks, from schoolwork to household help to physical activity. These points can be cashed in for small treats (like dessert or extra TV) or saved over the week for a larger reward ($10-15 to spend on art supplies or a game on Amazon after a larger amount of points over the course of the week). Another family is building in time to video chat with friends as tasks get completed. 
  • Clear and consistent consequences take the personal out of finishing tasks. If a student complies, they get the positive consequences. If they don’t, they miss out on something they like. It’s not personal. It’s just the plan. 
  • Can we hear it for VISUALS again?? You don’t have to be an artist or graphic designer to create a quick chart with 3 boxes to represent tasks to be done and a 4th box to represent the item your child is working for. 

#4 Balance

Our students with ASD thrive in classrooms that offer varied and authentic learning experiences, balanced with social skills integration and social-emotional learning. “School from home” is not expected to be school. It is not even home school. It is its own thing that we are all learning how to do together. Your child is not going to be able to fill an 8 hour school day with learning tasks at home. That doesn’t mean it is wise or helpful to spend the balance of their time playing video games or watching Youtube videos. Many teachers plan their class time in thirds: a lesson for a third of the time, guided practice for a third, then independent practice for the final third. Consider adding a similar balance to home tasks: one third each of school work, relaxation time, and activities in the middle like physical fitness, art, and stories. Students have a wide range of types of assignments and activities at school that helps add variety. Some ways to add balance to your days ahead include

  • Make a list with your child of things they want to do. Right now the internet is full of fun ideas for those of us sheltering in place. This list could be checked off as children do different types of activities that they enjoy and try new things as well. 
  • Balance YouTube videos your kids enjoy with some that have educational merit. Museums, zoos, parks, and other educational resource centers have been sharing many virtual field trips online. 
  • Understand your child’s tolerance for boredom. Some students with ASD need their time fully scheduled to help them refrain from self-stimulatory behaviors (“stimming”), while others can fill time with toys, books, or games. 
  • Save technology time for the times it is helpful to you as a parent. Need to make a conference call for work? Ipad time! Need to bathe another child or work on dinner? Netflix. 
  • Using color coding or a visual schedule on a day can help your child see how much screen time is enough or too much. One easy way to do this is to divide a paper plate in 12 sections for the hours 8am-8pm. Have your child color sections according to a code (red for screen time, green for school work, yellow for playtime, etc.) so they can see how they are spending their time. They can do this with you before they start their day as a plan or as they do things throughout the day as a tracker. 

#5 Joy

We teachers love spending our time with your students. For us, this is a hard time becuase we miss your children and the joy that comes with seeing them understand something new or show off a developing skill. We also understand that this new normal is stressful for you and for them. Find ways to add joy and fun. Try to acknowledge and normalize the stress of this time. Find ways to be joyful and make memories. 

  • Encourage your child to help you make a “school at home”. What aspects of their school day and environment do they enjoy and want to replicate? How can work also mimic play?
  • Praise your child frequently. Remind them that this is new and hard and that you really just want their best effort. When praising, be concrete and specific. For example, “I love how you concentrated and finished your math worksheet.” is much more powerful than “Good job on math!” It pairs the praise with the action, which hopefully leads them to want to do well again. 
  • Have each family member name a good thing from your day. You could write this on a long list or add them to a jar as a record of the special moments this change brings. 
  • Enjoy this time of transition. Though this time is different and often stressful, it does allow us to pause and spend time with our families. 
  • Create memories such as making a dessert or afternoon snack that the family can enjoy.
  • Remember that this too shall pass and your kids will be back with their teachers soon! We can’t wait!

REMEMBER, don’t try to tackle everything here at once. Choose an idea or two to add to your time at home and see if it helps you. We are here to help you tackle whatever you need!