Sending any child to school can be a stressful time for parents. How will he or she get along with the other children? How will he or she react to the order and discipline imposed by someone other than mom or dad? These questions – and many others – can loom even larger for the parents of a child diagnosed on the autism spectrum, which is why many may consider the possibility of a shadow, or helper, for their child during the school day.
But is a shadow at school the right option for every child?
Consider both the potential positives and negatives of shadowing
In order for shadowing a child with autism to be most effective, the child should developmentally be within a year or two of the other children in the classroom. If the gap is too large, the child may lack the skills to learn in a group or to learn from his or her peers, both of which are big parts of typically-developing classrooms. In addition, as the child ages, there may become a greater awareness of the gap on the child’s part, leading to potential frustration and a sense of being overwhelmed.
Further, in order to avoid potential social marginalization, it is helpful for a child to have basic group skills and to not be disruptive in the classroom. The child should also display an interest in what his or her peers are doing. Social skills may not be developed yet, but an interest in what the rest of the class is involved in can be helpful. The kids who are most successful with a shadow are motivated to do what the other kids are doing, but simply don’t know how.
A primary concern in the debate over shadowing is the possibility of the child becoming prompt-dependent on adult assistance. If the child has limited language ability to follow what’s going on in the group, or becomes disruptive or disinterested, the shadow will be the one prompting and the child may not develop the skills needed to follow natural cues. In a self-contained room or a clinical setting, the group can wait for the child, thus providing much more control over environmental variables. But in a school setting, there is no such control – the child must have the ability to meet some of those requirements independently.
Find the right fit
A critical piece in the shadowing puzzle is finding a school that will allow access for the shadow and be welcoming to the situation. Public schools in Illinois do not allow shadows; assistants must be school employees. Shadows are for private schools and pre-schools only.
Many private schools consider themselves elite and are therefore very selective while others – particularly parochial schools – are more willing to accept everyone (and, in fact, may have a defined mission of acceptance). Parents should meet with the school director to see if they are willing to accept both the child and the shadow. In all cases, the shadow should be willing to work with the school as much as possible to ensure a smooth integration into the classroom setting.
But the key issue in any shadowing discussion is whether the child will gain the right skills in the school environment. What if your child is in a gray zone? Often, the best first step is a limited trial period. Identify a specific set of goals to measure, try it for 4-6 weeks, and then assess whether any substantial progress was made, with a focus on not only skill acquisition, but behavioral adaptation as well. A good provider can help you understand what skills your child does and doesn’t have, and can likely suggest whether this kind of a trial would be a good idea.
We can help you determine if a shadowing trial might be a good fit for your child. Contact us today to set up a meeting!