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Every Child Team Eases Back-to-School Anxieties for Children with Autism
By Nancy Kennedy

Samantha BaillieMost parents probably breathe a sigh of relief as September approaches, knowing that soon the kids will be back in the classroom and the routines of the school year. For parents of children with autism and related disorders, however, it can be a stressful time, as the return to school often means a lot of change and transition. At Every Child, Inc., Pittsburgh's pioneering non-profit organization that supports families and children with special needs through a range of services, this challenging time is addressed by the agency's Family Based Mental Health program's special Autism Team.

"Change is tough for kids with autism, even when it is well planned, and the back-to-school period can be full of changes," says Samantha Baillie, M.A., L.P.C., therapist and leader of the Autism Team. "There may be a new school, new classroom, new teachers or classmates; even a new bus driver can be difficult. Summer is a time of less structure, and the school year requires keeping a schedule. Many kids will feel anxious as they anticipate going back to school, and their anxiety can be absorbed by the parents, who have concerns of their own."

Baillie and her colleagues at Every Child help families identify and implement strategies to reduce back-to-school stress, helping the whole family to navigate the changes and adjust. Baillie suggests that parents ask the school to let them bring the child to the school ahead of time to get acquainted – or reacquainted - with the environment, and perhaps meet the teachers and other staff. "A calm, controlled personal visit to the school can be very helpful. It promotes a sense of control. Another idea is to keep bedtime and wake-up times consistent through the summer, and to do a little schoolwork over the summer, to maintain skills."

JoJo Altebrando, Family Based senior clinician, says that an effective way to prepare for back-to-school is to use pictures and stories. "It's best to prepare with open, honest conversation, using social stories. If the child doesn't read, you can find ideas for stories at the library, online or on Pinterest. Be creative –use Google maps to show the child the school, or the new route. Parents should go to the school to meet the teachers and start a relationship with them."

At home, there is usually a level of comfort, where things are familiar and predictable, says Stacey Pfalzgraf, Family Based clinician. "For any transition, structure should be encouraged. It helps make things more manageable. Some children will have difficulty managing the after school period. It helps to use planners, calendars and visual schedule so the kids know what to expect. The schools welcome us to collaborate with them as they get to know the child and prepare to meet their needs."

Every Child's Family Based Services program emphasizes the uniqueness of every child and family, and approaches each with great respect for their individual needs and efforts. It is an intensive service, providing in-home intervention for families with a child that has significant behavior problems and has not progressed with less intensive services. The Family Based program is also offered to families with a child who is at risk for placement outside the home, in a psychiatric hospital or therapeutic residential facility. The program provides family and individual behavioral therapy, service coordination, skills training and advocacy. The Autism Program offers intensive support, education and therapy, provided by clinicians who have advanced training and expertise specific to the needs of children on the autism spectrum and their families. There is also crisis intervention available 24/7. Families receive home visits two or three times per week, for a period of 32 weeks.

According to JoJo Altebrando, the Family Based service is holistic and comprehensive. "We look at every angle and consider every factor that may be contributing to the family's situation. We make an effort to get the whole story and learn what they think is going on. We explain the process and help them identify the goals; the family decides what they need and chooses their treatment, and this is quite powerful for them. Often, they experience systems, such as school systems and healthcare, as intimidating, so when they can find their own voice and power, it's enormous for them and so satisfying for us to see."

To learn more about Every Child, visit www.everychildinc.org or call (412) 665-0600.

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