The best time to visit a potential classroom for your child on the Autism Spectrum is when school is in session. This should be done a few months before school gets out so you can find a suitable placement for your child in the next school year. You will need to set up an appointment with the Assistant Principal to tour the school campus and enter the classroom at an appropriate time.
Depending on where you live and your School District a representative might also be available for the tour. This might be the case when a child is heading off to a Middle School or High School. With many schools on a year-round basis it might also be possible for your child to take part in the observation and visit while on a spring or holiday break.
A few years ago I visited the current school my son Matthew attends and typed up the details from that visit. I gave a copy to an aide who was considering following a student to that same school and to the teacher. This helped the teacher let other parents know what the school had to offer students, especially those that worked full-time outside the home and could not take time to visit schools.
Bring along a notebook and pen to write down observations and answers to questions asked while on the tour. Try to involve other families from the current classroom of your pending visits so they can make the visit at the same time. Once the tour is over the parents can compare the two school settings and help come to a decision on where their children will attend the following school year.
There is one other male student in Matthew’s class that is also nonverbal and started out at the same Elementary School. Even though the family speaks limited English, we have visited two schools and discussed our impressions on what we liked at the school sites. Unfortunately since the last tour we learned that the school was at maximum enrollment for the autism class and our children would have to continue at the current school for another year.
When observing the classroom I always take note of the visual supports or lack thereof I find on the walls. Look around and see if there is a classroom schedule for the children to know what takes place throughout the day. Count how many children are in the class and the number of adults. The Teacher or Assistant Principal will be able to give you a final tally of the number of students, classroom aides and paraprofessionals assigned to specific students. I also inquire if there are other special education classrooms at the school. Usually there is an autism class and a down syndrome class. You can ask whether the therapists do joint sessions with another classroom and when doing computers, music or science, are there general education classes in the same room?
For example at the current school the Adaptive PE teacher combines the therapy with the two special education classrooms. If a teacher has to attend an IEP the classes might be combined if a substitute teacher was not obtained. This has happened a few times as well.
Here are the questions I ask of the Teacher and/or Assistant Principal when visiting a potential classroom for my child:
Teacher – background, number of years at school and experience
Therapists – names, days/times for sessions, pull-out or in class
Fire Drills – how often and how long do they last
Earthquake Drills – how often and how long
Assembly – what day and time, where is it located
Nurse – where is it located, toilet facilities, hours on site
Library – where is it located, how often, long, day & time
Science Lab – is there one on campus, what day and time visit
Music – where is the room, what day and time, other classes
Art – is this in class or elsewhere
Recess – what time does this take place, which playground
Lunch – what time, where do they sit, how long does it last
Schedule – write down the whole day lineup
Field trips – ask how often, example of where they go
Bus – where does the bus drop off kids, who is there to pick up
My son Matthew does not ride the bus, but it is written into his IEP that he would have an aide on board with him. If your child takes the bus with no aide check out the route they have to walk to the cafeteria and note where the restrooms are, etc. What time is breakfast served, is it outdoors or indoors, does the teacher come to get the kids and do the students play on the yard first or wait at benches? What happens when bus is late and breakfast is over? Do they utilize rest room on their own or wait for aide or teacher?
I also make note that Matthew is on medication and would be giving the teacher and nurse copies of the side effects and data on the medication. Even though it is not taken at school there is a dosage in the morning and school personnel needs to be aware of the side effects.
I ask about microwave and refrigerator, in case there are small compact ones in the classroom or in teacher’s lounge. This helps in knowing what can be brought to school for lunch and made ahead of time. It should also be discussed about bringing food from outside and what a child cannot eat if other students or teacher/aide bring in food items for parties, etc. This would include special diets and avoiding soda and junk food. Some classes have pets inside, so if your child has an allergy or is scared of certain animals this can be discussed. Is there an earthquake kit inside the classroom, where are the bathrooms closest to the classroom? When is winter recess and spring break? Is summer school offered at this campus? Obtain a school map while visiting the grounds.
Inquire what the protocol is for rainy days and whether students go directly to the classroom in the morning and if they need to keep an umbrella. Also note where the students keep their backpacks in the classroom and what supplies they need to bring from home, like a pencil box. I also indicate we would be keeping an extra set of clothes in the classroom for emergencies.
If your child uses adaptive equipment or picture cards ask if they have supplies in the classroom and if they need consults with various departments of the School District like Assistive Technology or Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Some schools have a Psychologist on staff so you can inquire if this is the case and if that person visits the classroom.
I also ask what the discipline policy is, whether they use restraints or have a time out system. Some schools have visiting dental offices and medical checkups. I ask about those as well. There will be forms to fill out if your child is going to participate at a later time.
It is also good to ask what the school office hours are and the playground hours. Many schools have after school functions and sports clubs. Prior to the visit do an online search for the school and see what the test scores are, ethnicity makeup and teacher to student ratios. Greatschools.net is a good source of data including the average teacher experience and credentialed teachers. Here you will also learn if the school has a free or low-cost meal program, before and after school care and the boundary information. The total number of students at the school would be listed on this site.
Also ask what the policy at the school is for parents observing the classroom and outside agencies visiting the class for observations and providing other therapies. I learned when visiting Matthew’s current school that sometimes they may have recess on the Kindergarten playground and that their recess was at 10:00 am with lunch at 12:30 outside. I learned which gate locks and closes at 8:30 in the morning and discussed parking when bringing my son to school since there were no handicapped spaces on the street. There is a sink inside the class and the aides have access to a microwave and Matthew’s diaper would be changed in the Nurses office.
Most schools have an authorization form the parent will fill out if they are requesting an outside professional to come to the classroom and observe their child. I would also ask about notifying parent when school district personnel come for assessments. There is also a handbook given out at the beginning of the school year and advance notice of picture day with makeup times for missed days.
At this time you may also inquire what the policy is for sending children home sick and whether this is done from classroom or the Nurse's office and which gate and door is open during school hours. Depending on where you reside you would also ask about lockdown policies, in case police activity is taking place in the area. If this happens or school issues are occurring, no one can get in or out of the campus until the incident is over and safety is no longer a factor. Students are then sent home with notes about the lockdown explaining what took place, or you may even see it on the news.
One time Matthew was not well in the morning and the got better a little while later so we headed over to the school. We saw students all entering the cafeteria and were notified a drill was taking place, so we headed back home.
Hopefully you can find a suitable classroom for your child and only need to visit one or two campuses. Try visiting the local library to ask for feedback on the school in question or post on message boards online.
Educational Autism Tips for Families 71 page resourceful ebook for families entering the school system with a recent autism diagnosis. Find out what issues take place over the course of a school day and meet these challenges head on.