Special events at school… helping the student with ASD cope and succeed.
December is a month in which many special events at school happen: concerts, plays, parties, winter carnivals… the list goes on. These events can be very challenging for students with ASD who may have difficulty handling change or who may have sensory sensitivities. Most parents really want their child to participate with their peers in these events in as normal a way as possible.
The following tips may help reduce the stress that can be experienced by the student with ASD, his peers, his parents and his teachers when including the student in special events:
- Familiarize the student with the location in which the special event will be held. If the student is already wary of events such as assemblies, you can expect that a school concert will also be difficult. Short, frequent opportunities to visit the gym and sit with his peers may help de-sensitize him to the experience. Consider alternatives to having him sit on the floor with peers (e.g. on a bench or a chair at the side of the gym) if he is unable to cope with sitting with his peers.
- Make sure he knows when the special event will occur, as well as when any rehearsals will occur. Use his visual schedule!
- Include him in rehearsals, but consider having him watch rather than participate during the first few rehearsals. Take pictures of the steps of the tasks within the rehearsal and print them out. Write a sentence or two about each picture and send it home for the parents to read with the child. For an activity like a winter carnival, prepare him with pictures regarding what will occur and what choices he will have. Use pictures even if the child is verbal. If the student is anxious he may not adequately process verbal explanations. Videos of events can also be a great tool for helping the child to understand expectations.
- Consider allowing the child to carry a break card during rehearsals and during the event. Cue him to use the break card if you see signs of escalating stress. Allow him to use the break card as often as he needs during initial rehearsals. Later, encourage him to stay longer before taking a break. Knowing that he can take a break if he needs to, can frequently reduce stress, allowing better coping to occur.
- If sensitivity to noise is an issue, consider tape recording rehearsals. Don’t forget to include applause in your recording if that is likely to be a part of the event. The recording can be played at school or at home, quietly at first and then with increasing volume. Knowing what to expect can reduce the anxiety that noise sensitivity may induce. A video can serve the purpose of both picture and auditory rehearsal.
- Be cautious regarding the use of costumes or make up. Often children don’t see the costumes or make up until the last rehearsal before the event. This can be very upsetting to some children with ASD who may not be expecting that everyone will look different during the event than they did in most rehearsals. Talk about costumes and demonstrate how make-up can change one’s appearance. Show the student before and after pictures of children with and without costumes. Be prepared that the student with ASD may not tolerate wearing a costume or donning makeup and allow him to participate without these items if necessary.
The joy and satisfaction that comes with having a student with significant challenges join in with his peers successfully is well worth the extra effort you put in to including him. Each time the child successfully manages in a situation he finds challenging, he builds resilience and adds to his repertoire of coping skills. Most students with ASD will be able to participate with appropriate supports.
For more information that may be helpful when considering how to support the student with ASD to participate in special events, you may also find helpful the following elearning modules on our website:
Self Regulation posted by Jacquie Bezo, posted March 2009
Emotional Regulation by Jacquie Bezo, posted April 2009
Using Video Modelling to Teach Children with Autism by Kelly MacGregor, posted August 2007
The Out-of-Sync Child has Fun by Carol Stock Kranowitz contains lots of ideas for the student who may have challenges due to sensory sensitivities.
No More Meltdowns by Jed Baker contains simple and effective ideas for preventing the challenging behaviours that may result from the anxiety created by special events.