Is preschool right for my autistic toddler?
Maybe you’ve received therapy services in-home to this point, but what happens next? Sure, there’s nothing wrong with receiving in-home services or going to a clinic to receive these services. But your child may need more support.
For us, that meant setting up a meeting with our local Committee on Preschool Special Education to decide what would be done.
We already had an IFSP (Individual Family Service Plan) in place for Sweet B, so it was just a matter of making modifications to that to better suit her growing needs.
We were involved in every step of the process in terms of figuring out the level of support that she would need in her new environment. But how would that translate to transitioning Sweet B? To this point, after all, she had been home with me while her therapists came to the house.
First things first, what program she would attend. And from there, we could make a plan for how to prepare our autistic toddler for preschool.
Your Autistic Toddler and Preschool
It’s important to remember- yes, your toddler is autistic but they are also a toddler. You can approach this in a similar way that you would for any other child when it comes to preparing a toddler for preschool.
Many parents enroll their children in preschool programs without considering whether or not their child is really ready for preschool.
Many parents are eager to give their child a head start in the race to educational success so children are starting preschool at younger ages. However, enrolling your child too early in preschool can cause long-term problems with your child’s education rather than giving the head start you intended.
What to Consider Before Sending Your Autistic Toddler to Preschool
- How can you judge whether or not your child is ready for preschool? Take a look at three key areas: physical development, social development, and emotional development.
- You should also look at the program itself. For example, some programs are specifically geared to a young age group and are less about formal education and more about play and social experience.
Some programs have very limited time periods (only a few hours a week) and are intended to introduce young children very gently to the educational experience. However, the standard preschool program is generally geared toward children ages 3 and 4 in preparation for kindergarten.
Just because your child falls within the correct age group does not mean your child is ready for preschool.
Forcing a child who is not ready physically, socially, or emotionally into a formal school setting could set the child up for failure, which could then result in a life-long problem with school.
Physically your child should be able to attend to most personal hygiene issues independently or under supervision. This means the child should be potty trained as well as able to clean up afterward (including unfastening and fastening clothing). Your child should also be able to feed herself with little or no supervision.
The child should also be able to focus on a task, such as coloring, as well as listen attentively, to a story or conversation, for longer than a few minutes.
Another important physical development issue is whether or not your child is able to maintain the school schedule. Will the snack and meal breaks meet your child’s nutritional needs? Will he be able to stay awake until it is time to leave or take a nap?
Preschool is often a time and place when children learn a great deal about friendship and social interactions, but if a child isn’t ready for this level of social activity it can be tough on the child, class, and family.
Children should have some experience playing with their peers, learning to share and take turns, and working out their differences before attending preschool. Children should also have some experience taking direction from adults who are not their primary caregivers.
For example, a child who has only been in the care of a select few relatives may have difficulty adjusting to the care of a strange new adult.
Emotional development is another key consideration when determining if a child is ready for preschool. Is your child ready for the separation from home and parent or previous day care provider? How does your child adjust to new places and people?
If your child has difficulty with social skills, for example, try one of these printable packs:
If you think your child is not ready in one or more of these important areas then you should put off starting preschool. It may be that in a few months time your child will have leaped past those hurdles and be ready to start. You can also work with your child on the areas you feel need work, such as personal care or social interaction.
Many programs also allow you to ease your child into the program with only a few hours a week gradually stepping up to full participation.
Remember, young children grow and develop at a tremendous pace so simply giving your child some time to grow into a program is much better than forcing the issue. In later years your child won’t feel the impact of those “missed” months on their education but a positive preschool experience will have a lasting effect on self esteem and learning.
Starting your child’s preschool experience when they are ready, willing, and able is the best way to set your child on the road to educational success.
And in the meantime, you can keep a few of these educational toys for autism in toddlers on hand.
5 Tips to Help Prepare Your Autistic Toddler for Preschool
If at all possible, take a tour or multiple tours of your child’s center and classroom. This will help them become familiar with the location. Introduce them to their teachers and support staff.
If your child thrives with visual aids, ask if it’s okay to take pictures of the classroom and staff.
If your child’s classroom will allow for it, ask if they would be okay with you creating a preschool schedule. Otherwise, work with your child’s Speech Therapist to create one.
Starting preschool can be intimidating for any child but can be particularly difficult for autistic children. Helping them to become familiar with the new classroom and teachers could go a long way in reducing their anxiety.
Talk to classroom staff about what you do for meltdowns at home and ask what strategies that they use at school.
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