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Tweens with Special Needs

Recently my son started yelling “No!” when asked to brush his teeth. Or pick up his shoes, or do his homework, or turn off the computer. His refusal to perform simple requests while stomping up the stairs and shooting dirty looks caught me off guard, because he usually does what he’s told. He has always feared disappointing me, practically to a fault.
But his behavior shouldn’t be a surprise – he’s becoming a tweenager, after all. His actions are typical of most children this age, yet for those of us whose kids have special needs, life will take additional twists and turns.
As the mom of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as Apraxia, a motor processing disorder that impacts my son’s speech, I’ve become accustomed to countless meetings with teachers and therapists. We discuss adapting his assignments as well as his struggles with numerous anxieties. I thought I’d get used to the routine, but it seems to be getting even more complicated as we go along. This year, my son prepared for state tests on top of daily homework. Harder topics such as long division ate into our hopes of joining soccer leagues and other extracurricular activities he needs for socialization and, well, fun.
Transitioning your child into a more age-appropriate role and frustration with brand-new negative behaviors become daunting tasks once those preteen years roll around. The good thing is that if you haven’t set solid routines and expectations yet, now is the time. These tween years are an excellent opportunity to set the stage for your child to become a responsible adult.
Tweens in the classroom
School demands grow as students get older. Juggling teachers, balancing assignments and handling a greater degree of academic difficulty can become overwhelming for your child. Keeping teachers aware of needed modifications can be challenging, and even when teachers are following the Individualized Education Plan, students often struggle. It’s possible teachers aren’t aware how much homework your child has – so be sure to discuss this with them.
Most likely, your middle schooler changes classrooms throughout the day. If this is stressful for her, especially with crowded hallways, request that your child be allowed to leave the room just before the bell rings. This extra moment might make the middle-school adjustment easier and probably won’t be necessary after the first few weeks of school.
Some students don’t like having an aide present in the classroom, because it calls attention to their being “different.” Talk about the role of the aide with your child. If the aide is in the classroom to help with learning strategies or to clarify information, the aide can’t be replaced. But if the aide is there to make sure your child puts the right assignments in her backpack, there may be another option. Can a responsible peer review what needs to be done at home? Is it possible the aide can also assist other students in the room, taking the focus off of your child?
If an aide is in the room because of behavioral issues, this could be the perfect opportunity to discuss the expectations for all students. The aide might be there to redirect a child who has attention issues and is constantly getting out of his seat and disrupting the class. But if your child learns not to engage in these negative behaviors, the reward could be dispensing with the aide.
By middle school, students should sit in during meetings that relate to their special education services. The sooner the student can take an active role in his education, the more likely he is to understand his own needs and what strategies work for him. Parents now transition to the role of supporting their child’s education, rather than making decisions about it directly.
Even after meeting with teachers at the beginning of the school year, my son was still spending hours on his homework. Exasperated, I often shortened his assignments or wrote as he spoke, freeing him up to focus on the questions themselves. The result was a much more relaxed attitude for both of us, which allowed him to answer each question with deeper understanding.
Mika Bradford, a board member with Families for Effective Autism Treatment North Texas (FEANT), reminds parents as well as special education teachers that modifications are designed to improve your child’s academic and social skills. “We do have to be mindful that the workload for our children is a much heavier burden than for most,” she says. If a student does better with fewer math problems or takes more time to master a skill, the teacher should allow this.
Bradford once timed how long it took for students to complete a task independently, without being rushed. She found that on average, it takes three times longer for a student with a special need such as a processing or attention disorder to complete a task. Assuming your child has multiple classes with multiple teachers, that’s a lot of assignments. It’s no wonder school can feel overwhelming. As school demands increase, parents might need to re-evaluate home routines and extracurriculars.
To help with the load, some parents opt to use tutoring services. Academia Center 4 Tutoring in Grapevine has programs designed for students with ADD, Asperger’s Syndrome and anxiety issues. As children enter middle and high school, tutoring services can help your child review basic facts before the pace of the upper grades becomes relentless.
Recognizing differences
Another tough transition for tweens is recognizing that they’re different from their peers. “It was about the middle of fifth grade when Grant suddenly stopped wanting to go to school,” one Dallas mom recalls of her son, who has dyslexia. “He was getting teased by the kids because he had to go to a resource room.”
Grant decided to do a presentation about dyslexia, citing famous people such as Tom Cruise and Orlando Bloom who’ve dealt with the disorder. After his presentation, some students offered to help Grant when he struggled to read in front of the class. While it didn’t stop all of the teasing, he found peers who helped him ignore it.
Dr. Mary Ann Block is medical director of The Block Center, which, among its services, provides treatment for teenagers with learning differences and special needs. “The difference between children with special needs and their peers is that in some cases the differences are becoming more apparent,” she says. “Education [of the other students] can really help, as most kids are helpful when they understand what is going on.”
Setting up a time with teachers or counselors to discuss what’s happening in the hallways between classes can also be helpful. They can watch for teasing or inappropriate behavior and possibly recommend a classmate who could become a friend for your child.
Families for Effective Autism Treatment of North Texas hosts a group for pre-teens that allows them to practice social skills in a more natural setting. While the kids play games or simply hang out, parents and teachers help them with turn-taking and being flexible. Kids play differently as they mature; play dates are no longer supervised, and they make up rules and change them to keep the game exciting. If a kickball game gets boring, older kids might add a second ball to liven things up. For kids on the spectrum, flexibility is often a huge problem. “When I watched my son play with others, it was his biggest problem,” says one mom whose son is in the FEAT program. “He’d get angry and stop playing.”
As a parent, it’s all too easy simply to avoid activities that cause your child to get upset. When they were little, temper tantrums weren’t such a big deal; just about every mom could relate. But when that child is five feet tall and wears the same shoe size as you, it’s different. Instead of telling her son he no longer had to play kickball, this mom encouraged him to play the game more. “It’d be easier to avoid these things that upset him, but the truth is it means I have to do the opposite,” she says. “He used to refuse to go into Walmart, so I had to take him there more. Now it’s no problem.”
If other behaviors concern you, such as aggression or the inability to complete a task, your child’s teachers can help. Carrie Davidson, a specialist at The Arc of Collin, Dallas & Rockwall Counties, says, “You may need to get your home behavior plan in synch with the plan at school. Consistency is key.” If your student works well at school with picture cues to remind her which class to go to next, use them at home. Placing cue cards on the refrigerator is much better than nagging your child to complete tasks.
For some parents, it might be time to reconsider whether your child goes on medication, even if this was something you decided not to do in earlier years. “It’s a difficult choice for sure, but if you have other children, medication might be the only option,” one mom says.
Reinforce their independence
It’s easy to hover over our children in hopes of protecting them. We fight for their rights at school, closely monitor play dates to see whether our child is being treated fairly and think through every grocery trip and vacation. This limits their opportunities to experience the real world without you guiding them through it, however. As your child gets older, they need to become their own advocate.
At home, chores are a big step to becoming independent. Whether it’s feeding the dog, folding towels or helping make dinner, life skills are important for all children to master, not just those with special needs.
While the tween years can be trying for the whole family, most of the problems we encounter are problems for typically developing peers too. With a little planning and persistence, you can manage the drama.
To contact Families for Effective Autism Treatment North Texas, visit featnt.org.

Dr. Mary Block can be contacted at The Block Center, blockcenter.com.

Published July 2013