Parents of children with disabilities are hopeful about this complicated school year.
Heather Hewitt’s daughter Penny has autism and adjusting to the new realities of school is a challenge for her. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely altered school day. Patrick Newhook/Kicker
Going back to school can be a stressful time for a kid. For children with autism, it can be frightening.
In mid-August, it was announced that schools would re-open. The youth of the province would be heading back to class.
The announcement was met with enthusiasm and concern from parents. After being out of school for six months, parents wondered how their kids would handle going back during a pandemic.
This was especially true for parents of children with autism.
One parent who felt this way was Brandy Goodland, whose son, Dante, started kindergarten in September. Dante was diagnosed with autism in August of 2019.
“I was very nervous because Kinderstart didn’t go very well,” said Goodland. “We only had the two sessions so he was very minimally exposed to the school system. So I was very nervous, I wasn’t sure what it was going to look like, (there were) a lot of unknowns with it.”
According to the Autism Speaks Canada website, autism is a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, speech, and behaviour.
“I was scared of how Dante was going to react and how he was going to cooperate with things,” said Goodland. “He found it really hard because all of a sudden his world was flipped upside down because it was a sudden change. And so he was very dysregulated because of it, he regressed a lot in his social skills. That was a really big challenge where we were going into the school system for the first time.”
Heather Hewitt shares Goodland’s fears.
Hewitt’s daughter, Penny, is seven years old and in Grade two. Penny has autism and it can be difficult for her to transition to a new normal.
“I was excited and nervous, I was excited that she could go back to a regular routine, but also nervous because I wasn’t sure if the transition plan we had going into school was going to throw her off,” said Hewitt. “Normally we would have a lot of time to prepare but we didn’t have that this year.”
Both parents, however, feel that so far, the schools have been able to help their children get through these times.
“I’m very pleased. The school is communicating a lot with me and that’s fantastic,” said Hewitt.
Many schools planned ahead to help children with autism return to class. Lindsi Hutchings is a guidance counselor and a member of the Student Support Services Team with the Newfoundland Eastern School District. She believes that home school communication is vital.
“The biggest piece is routine because they depend heavily on it and when you have changes in that routine or that structure it can be quite scary for them….
“We really depend on that connection, especially now during this pandemic because the family are the ones that know the student best and know what works and doesn’t work,” said Hutchings. “It’s really critical that all parties involved are on the same page and that they are working together.”
One of the biggest factors, says Hutchings, when it came to getting children with autism back to school, was routines. Hutchings believes they are necessary to help children with autism get back into the swing of things. With COVID-19, those routines have changed.
“The biggest piece is routine because they depend heavily on it and when you have changes in that routine or that structure it can be quite scary for them.We tried as much as possible to keep it as close as it would be in a typical year so there’s not so much of a disruption in what they would expect,” said Hutchings.
Hutchings understands parents’ concerns and how difficult it can be for children with autism to return to school during the pandemic. Despite it all, she believes that currently, the schools are making it work.
“It’s not without challenges, of course, but I think for the most part the teachers and the students are doing awesome,” said Hutchings.