Schools are fraught with environmental stimuli that can conspire to wreak havoc on your child's sensory sensitivities. Many children with Asperger's already torture themselves with anxiety about wanting to follow the rules, live up to teacher expectations, and get through each day without incident. In addition, they must grapple with having their senses assaulted throughout the day. In some instances — if the child is not yet a self-advocate, or if he is unaware of his own sensitivities — he may be unable to pinpoint exactly what triggers him to lose control. This is extremely common.
So many kids with Asperger's Syndrome are keenly aware of the social, educational, and environmental expectation that they blend in and “fit in.” To compensate, they “hold it together” all day long as best they can. Once they get home, they finally release, lose control, and melt down in the safety of the home environment — where they feel most comfortable to let down their guard. This creates a perplexing situation for teachers who report to parents that their child seems “fine during the day.” It also creates a frustrating situation for parents who may internalize their own self-doubts about something they must be doing wrong. It is no one's fault; the child is merely reacting to the relief at dropping the façade he's borne for the past six hours or more.
Here are a number of suggestions that you will wish to share with your child's teachers to minimize the potentially hurtful environmental stimuli in typical school settings:
Hallways can become extremely noisy and “echoey.” Wherever possible, keep classroom doors shut.
The volume of the PA system in the room may be too loud. If it's possible to adjust the volume, this can help. Same for the change-of-class bell.
Classroom walls can be overstimulating and “busy” with decoration. If visuals cannot be streamlined, at least keep them somewhat static so the child with Asperger's can become accustomed to them.
Consider felt pads under the feet of all classroom chairs as buffers against the constant scraping noise they make.
Carrels or partitions around learning stations and computer centers are great for creating visual blocks on both sides of a student and can also cut down some noise.
Ringing classroom phones can be startling. Switch to a flashing light instead of a ring to indicate a call.
Classroom announcements or posters like “Ten Great Ways to Treat Others” are most effective if transcribed and distributed to all kids (this makes them easier to retain when outside the room).
Numbering classroom rules as written reminders for the child with Asperger's is a good idea, but publicly displaying them on a desktop is stigmatizing. Tape them inside a child's notebook or binder and refer to them discreetly.
Focus on natural lighting instead of fluorescent lights when possible, using fewer overhead lights or adding alternate lighting such as floor lamps.
Give the child with Asperger's advance notice of fire-drill times so that he may brace himself for the noise. If he cannot tolerate it, small foam earplugs may help, or wearing iPod or MP3-player headphones may diffuse the noise.
Ensure that all students have advance knowledge of schedule changes outside of the routine, such as early dismissal or assemblies.
You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that many environmental adaptations and accommodations can be low in cost or cost nothing. In fact, you may wish to apply them, wherever possible, to your own home in addition to those of friends, neighbors, or relatives.
Implementing these measures will significantly help the child with Asperger's to “hold it together” in a more environmentally friendly atmosphere. (And, no, don't allow yourself to feel as if it's “coddling” your child — doesn't it make sense to poise him for success instead of set him up for failure in the school environment, where he spends the majority of his day?)