Like many of the incoming sixth-graders at Edward A. Fulton Junior High in O'Fallon, Nate Shaw has a lot of changes in front of him. He'll be in a new building, with new classes, teachers and students.
Unlike many of those students, however, Nate has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that affects the way he learns. Nate loves school, so he's ready for the change of pace. His mom, on the other hand, is a little apprehensive.
"My other son went there, so I know the school," said Susan Shaw. "But I don't know the paths Nate is going to walk or what his classroom is going to look like."
For parents of children with special needs, fine details can be crucial in making sure their child has a smooth school year.
"Sensory overload is a huge issue, particularly for children with autism," said Rachel Newsome, director of communication and development for the Illinois Center for Autism in Fairview Heights. "Loud noises, changes in the light can all lead a child to get upset."
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That's why many parents of children with disabilities do a lot more than check off the supply list and pick out a new pair of tennis shoes before the first day of school. They often start their summer communicating with teachers and the district, visiting the school and planning and preparing with their child for what's going to be new.
Things as standard as getting fresh school supplies require a lot of finesse, said Ellen Wallace, of Pontoon Beach, whose 18-year-old son Aaron has autism, a developmental disability.
"Things like backpacks we don't change; he's had the same one for four years," she said, adding she's already pushed back bed time and started waking him up earlier to get ready for his school schedule. "We go pick out a new folder or notebook to see that it's good to get new things. But change is a big deal, and it can be upsetting."
Clothes, pencils, bus drivers, even furniture in the classroom unfamiliar to the established routine can be jarring to students with special needs, who often succeed with consistency. Incorporating changes over time and talking about adjustments makes transitions like going back to school easier, Newsome said.
"We've been doing some school work we brought home from last school year, going over letters and numbers," Westin Walker, of Caseyville, said of some review he's doing with his son Maleek, who starts school at the Illinois Center for Autism this month.
Public schools are also getting ready and changing approaches. The Granite City School District, for example, recently held seminars with teachers on education children with autism.
Parents said it's just as important to talk with teachers about what to expect. Abilities vary among students, even those with the same diagnosis. While parents said special educators can recognize situations that might be frustrating to a child with special needs, classes like music and gym can be a problem if those teachers do not know the best way to work with their children.
"Let the people at the school who work with your child know what you know about your child," said Walker. "If they don't know those things, then they might not understand why they are not working or acting like other children."
Contact reporter Sarah Baraba at 618-344-0264, ext. 105