12/02/2011 12:44 EST | Updated 02/01/2012 05:12 EST

The Problem Wth Stuff

School is well under way and I see many kids walking through the halls literally under a mountain of unruly stuff. How do we help kids on the autism spectrum not only keep track of it all, but take ownership? Here are a few tips I've learned along the way as a fly on a classroom wall:

One binder:

Think of school supplies as a starting point for what the teacher needs to keep you child's assignments organized. But what does you child need? I see so many kids, balancing stacks of scribblers, binders and Duo-Tangs with papers coming out and almost always causing frustration and ending in a pile on the floor. We've found that one huge six-inch binder makes all he difference.

We punch a hole in every assignment and have dividers with zippered compartments to house sheets that always seem to come loose. As kids get older, they can take more liberties with what materials to use, so your son or daughter may want to be involved in colour-coding the subjects and putting the binder together in a way that makes sense to him/her.

Winter clothes

Up here in the Great White North, hats, mitts and other winter accoutrements are a nightmare to keep track of for a lot of kids. When kids are little, it's easy to sew everything to a string that lives inside their jackets and be done with it. But what about older kids? How do you walk the line between nagging them to keep track of winter clothes while at the same time trying to show them the natural consequence of losing them?

A year or so ago, I discovered that chanting can be really helpful with this conundrum. In a quiet moment, when the kids I work with are engaged, we collaborate on a chant to help remember things like:

You put you gloves in your hat,

And your hat in your sleeve.

You put you gloves in your hat,

And your hat in your sleeve.

You would be surprised at how quickly a chant (especially if it's built together, a la RDI) gets integrated into memory. You can weave it in throughout the day and this kind of self-talk really helps to encode the routine, especially if it's done with some light-hearted humour.


Many kids are required to carry a homework agenda from school to home and back. Most of the agendas issued by schools are ridiculously over-stimulating; the pages are cluttered with everything from random quotes to maps and metric conversion charts.

Remembering things in a way that is meaningful for them is crucial to your child building competency at school.

Taking the opportunity to modify the look of your child's homework agenda is a great way to work on this. My advice would be to help your child type up a format that makes sense to them on the computer and attach it to your kid's agenda. For us, we've found that one day per page (as opposed to several days on one page) makes a huge difference. Another suggestion is to make your own agenda. Just make sure you give the teacher a heads-up so they can sign the agenda the same way they do with every other child.

Report cards

Report cards are another example of someone else's process being the expected template for communicating with you and your child. The school has their own reasons for needing to communicate in a certain way, but why not weave in your own? Our RDI consultant suggested having the teacher make at least one tangible comment directly to your child. It is such a meaningful way of both encoding success and highlighting things that still need work. It's another great example of how if the same ideas are presented in a slightly different way, it can help your child take ownership of their progress at school. Most teachers are happy to take the extra 30 seconds to do it, just make sure to mark it down in your child's individualized education program that this is the best way to make report cards meaningful for your child.

Notes to home

For whatever reason, handwritten notes by the teacher have always had a significant impact on the kids that I work with. We always used a separate pad for notes going to and from the teacher. If there was a scuffle at recess or a nugget of praise, there was something about the hand-delivered message that seemed to make a huge impression.

Sara Winter is a classroom aide to kids on the autism spectrum and the founder of, a social space for kids with ASD to break down the big idea of friendship. She lives with her husband and two young sons in Toronto.