Thomas, Amanda and T.J. Pflugradt pose for a photo together on a basketball court.

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T.J. Pflugradt is a huge 16-year-old defensive lineman for the Benton Cardinals football team.

The high school junior can hold his own against any offensive lineman. Perhaps his biggest foe is having an autism spectrum disorder.

“He’s pretty high-functioning,” said Amanda Pflugradt, his mother.

People who suffer autism struggle without a schedule and structure. A social kid, Amanda Pflugradt worries her son may have trouble transitioning back to school when it begins again after the pandemic and its social-distancing restrictions. For one thing, T.J. doesn’t like having to wear a mask.

“The trouble with him transitioning back into school is going to depend on changes made. There have been talks of wearing masks,” she said. “We tried working with that and he doesn’t do well with it, gets anxious, breaks out in a sweat and can’t breathe.”

She added there’s talk of doing away with sports, which will greatly affect T.J. It’s something he loves, and he has lots of friends on his football team.

“It’s been a godsend him being on the football team. The boys and the coaches are a great asset to him and brought him out of his shell,” Pflugradt said. “He fears losing that.”

Her son misses socialization with teachers and classmates as well, she said.

Pflugradt said she’s seen T.J. regress somewhat during this time, suffering from depression and some anxiety and being cooped up inside.

Pflugradt, a special education educator at Helen Davis School said when school starts again she hopes officials take into account what’s best for students not just medically, but mentally.

“Mental health is jut as important as catching a virus,” she said. “Catching a virus can be deadly, but mental heath can be deadly as well.”

Annette Nunez, a leading autism expert and psychotherapist based in Denver, offers a few tips for transitioning back to school for students with special needs.

For starters, find out when school will start and start prepping the kids beforehand.

“About three weeks before school starts, create a calendar counting down the days to when they start school. They love structure,” Nunez said.

It also helps to take pictures of the school, favorite teachers and classmates and use Zoom video communication as well.

Another important step is helping the child to be more independent. Self-help skills are as important as academic skills, she said.

“It’s things we don’t think of like opening a lunch box, putting papers in a folder, maybe hanging up backpack on a hook — just any life skill to make child more independent,” she said

It’ estimated that one in 59 children, more than 1.2 million, have an autism spectrum disorder.

The Centers for Disease Control defines autism spectrum disorder as a developmental disability that causes significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives while others need less.

Alonzo Weston can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPWeston.