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Schools, parents take extra steps to prep kids with autism for an unusual year

Posted at 3:41 PM, Aug 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-24 19:36:53-04

DEER PARK, Ohio — Linden Grove School head Kristin Tennyson has been busier than usual in the lead-up to the first day of school. At her private campus, which is specially geared toward students with autism, making sure students are mentally and emotionally prepared for a COVID-19-adjusted school year is just as important as making sure they’re physically safe.

“Whatever we can do to prepare the kids ahead of time can greatly reduce their anxiety,” Tennyson said Monday.

To that end, she and her staff have made a long list of prep materials for students and their families. The new students who arrive on campus Tuesday will have seen flyers and videos showing how hygiene equipment, like the newly installed soap dispensers, works. They’ll also have pictures of their teachers with and without masks.

And Tennyson is still working, she said. Like many other school leaders, she doesn’t know quite what to expect.

“COVID has changed everything,” she said.

But she’s found a unique tool that she thinks might help families whose children have autism. It’s a book, “Cameron Goes to School,” written by former Newtown mom Sheletta Brundidge.

Brundidge has three children with autism, two of whom also have severe social anxiety. She wrote the book about her daughter, Cameron, to help her conquer first-day-of-school fears.

It’s been a help to other children, too, said Tennyson.

“We have so few books about kids with autism,” Tennyson said. “If they’re able to relate and picture themselves, that helps.”

Brundidge wrote the book before COVID-19. She said the pandemic has delivered new challenges to her family, just as it has to Linden Grove School.

“If somebody even gets too close to them at this point, they're so afraid of COVID that they'll just start screaming,” she said of her children. “And so we've even gone up to the school a few times just to walk around the building, and they're afraid."

But they’ve made progress, too. Cameron, who was non-verbal at the time the book was written, can now read it aloud.

And hearing that the book is helping other families makes Brundidge happy, she said.

“The kids are identifying with Cameron's story, right?” she said. “They're identifying with pressing past your fears and limitations. They're saying, ‘You know what, if she can be brave, then I can be brave.’”