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Back-to-school tips for special needs students really apply to every child

Mike Shimek, 8, smiles as he works on his computer and watches a DVD in his bedroom. Mike has autism, and his return to school requires some adjustment to get back into a school routine. (Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf)1 / 2
Mike Shimek, 8, and his mother Julie Jurgens-Shimek talk in Mike's bedroom, where his computer and television are set up. Jurgens-Shimek has been trying to ease Mike back into a school routine, in anticipation of the first day of school on Tuesday. (Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf)2 / 2

NEW LONDON -- On Tuesday morning, Mike Shimek will get up, get dressed and get on the bus to head off for third grade.

He'll have chosen his clothes the night before, and his lunch will be packed and ready to go.

"There's a lot of what we do that's very similar to other families," said his mother, Julie Jurgens-Shimek.

But for Mike, an 8-year-old with autism, getting into the routine might be more difficult, and it will take a lot more planning.

Joel Justin, a Willmar special education teacher, recently compiled a list of tips for parents to help their children get ready for school. He is the coordinator of the attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder support programs at The Resource Center Program at West Central Industries of Willmar.

While he wrote the list to share with parents in an ADHD support group, he said, much of it could apply to anyone because going back to school is a major adjustment all kids.

Items on the list include getting clothes ready to go the night before, having a routine for homework and using a large family calendar to keep track of schedules.

As a teacher, Justin said, he knows it's important to get the school year off to a good start, with the first two weeks most crucial.

"If a parent could have this guide, it would increase our chances for a good school year," he said. "I think all these little things we can do will provide a better chance for kids to be successful."

Jurgens-Shimek said this week that Friday was to be their big shopping day, when she and Mike would pick out school supplies and clothes. They'd also get supplies for his lunches and also snacks to stock the shelves for his school's autism program.

They hadn't shopped earlier, she said, because she wanted to keep the shopping and the start of school in a tight time frame, to fit better with Mike's perception of time.

Shopping used to be more difficult, but "Mike has reached a point where making decisions and choices comes very easy for him," she said.

Like many children with autism, sticking to a routine is very important to him. "If he can't get into a routine, it's not good for anyone," his mother said.

Charts and notebooks help Mike, his mother and his dad Jim keep his routine intact once school starts.

Shimek said she had some advice for parents of children with special needs. "I can attest that your stomach will quit turning" while your child is away from you, she said.

When Mike was examined as a youngster, his parents were told he had no imagination, but they knew that wasn't the case. The boy has always loved Christmas, and he is a genius with computers and electronics.

"I tell all parent with a child who is facing special needs, listen to the experts, but compare it to what you know," she said. "You know your child better than they do."

Shimek said she hopes Mike's school is able to take advantage of his knowledge of computers to help him learn. "I have high expectations for Mike's education," she said.

Parents who need information or support in helping their children with special needs can turn to The Resource Center Program, said coordinator Jamin Johnson.

The program provides information and other assistance for families with children with attention deficit disorders, Down syndrome, autism and other challenges.

Justin's advice could be useful for any family, Johnson said. "What kid doesn't love rewards."

And it's not a bad idea for all children to help choose their clothes before going to bed. "The next morning, there's no battle because it's ready to go," she said.

For more information about The Resource Center Program and its services, call 320-235-4310.

Justin can be reached at

Jurgens-Shimek has written books about the family's journey with Mike. The first book was "The Color Red." Her latest is "Autism is a Four-Letter Word: Love."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340