Autism is a huge issue that may affect many daycare providers or those that own childcare centers. Diane Van Driesen, Director of Autism Services for the Wawa Eden House, clarifies autism spectrum disorder and describes special services for autistic children. Van Driesen also provides advice for parents of autistic children who are searching for child care and for daycare providers who care for autistic children.
OwnADaycare: Must autistic children go to schools for children with special needs or can they attend a “traditional” daycare or preschool?
Van Driesen: Typical preschools are rarely prepared to offer a child with autism the support and therapy he/she needs to progress. For very young children on the autism spectrum, social settings may be extremely challenging. Children with autism may not learn through imitation (one of the basic difficulties inherent in autism), so just being around typical peers usually is not enough to learn social skills. In addition, the noise, physical interaction and high level of expectation in a typical preschool may be overwhelming.
Even with a one-on-one support at school, a child with autism may have a difficult time with behavioral and/or sensory challenges, such as circle time, sharing, and so forth. Teachers without specific training may not know how to help your child manage his or her behaviors. Also, typical preschool programs are not set up to provide the kind of intensive therapeutic programs so often recommended by professionals. When preparing to send your child to preschool I highly recommend that you discuss preschool options with the professionals that evaluate and provide services to your child and family. When making decisions about preschools for your child, there is “one size fits all”; each child will have individual needs and preschool programming should reflect these individual needs.
OwnADaycare: What should parents of autistic children look for in a daycare or preschool?
Van Driesen: Although it is critical that children with autism receive specialized programming, many families have the need for their children to attend daycare. Daycare facilities that specialize in the instruction and care of children with autism are extremely rare and families must rely on local and traditional day care facilities. Optimally, , it is essential to choose a daycare provider that understands the social and communication issues common to autism and is well equipped to provide the support needed to acquire these skills successfully. Be sure to investigate details such as the teacher to student ratio and class size. Smaller classes are often the best environment for children with social interaction issues, providing opportunities to learn social skills without the pressure of large, overwhelming numbers of peers on which to practice them. It may be appropriate for support services such as early intervention to be provided within the daycare setting to assist and train staff.
OwnADaycare: What tips can you offer preschool teachers and daycare providers who care for autistic children?
- Think and teach visually. Many children with autism are visual learners and using pictures and other visual aids during teaching is helpful.
- Use an area of interest or a special talent to connect with the child. Using reinforcing materials may improve attention and focus during activities.
- Be aware of environmental distractions, such as bright lights and loud sounds, which may interfere with learning or comfort. Some children learn better when moving or using their hands, while other children may require silence in order to concentrate. Explore a variety of sensory environments with the child to determine which one is most conducive to learning.
- Utilize technology, such as television, CDs, and computers. Encourage use of the computer and keyboard to improve communication.
- Make your expectations simple and clear. Use concrete language when presenting directions, and reinforce those ideas with pictures or modeling. Avoid lengthy verbal instructions, and break tasks and instructions into clearly defined steps. Wait for the child to complete the first step before moving on to the next one.
- Stick to a routine. Some children with autism need routine to feel secure. Even the slightest disruption in schedule can cause tantrums. Prepare the child in advance for schedule changes or trips away from home.
- Be patient with yourself and the child. Seek out support and training from experienced professionals.
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