It's that back-to-school time of year, when shops are overflowing with #2 pencils and spiral notebooks, backpacks and sneakers, parents and children. If your child has autism, however, preparing him or her for a new school year likely involves things you can't find in aisle 12.
Many people with autism struggle with change, and returning to school marks one of the biggest annual transitions for children and teenagers. They must adjust to a new routine, teachers, classmates, bus, or school, any of which can send anxiety into overdrive.
How can families ease the back-to-school transition for their students with autism – and themselves?
Make a Photo Book or Video about the New School Year
Help prepare your child by making a photo book or video of the new classroom, teachers, and school.
It can be as fancy as creating a book with a Word document or PowerPoint, or as simple as gluing on photos with handwritten captions for each page.
Photos or videos are recommended because many students with autism learn best that way. Studies show that autism interventions that use visual information, such as picture schedules and video modeling, are very effective.
Families may think they've prepared their children for a new school year by talking about it, but if they don't see it, it doesn't have the same impact.
When a parent tells a child they will have a new class and a new teacher, they don't know what pictures are in the child's head about what that will look like. A child with ASD may not understand that the phrase, your teacher, will refer to a new person each year. Similarly, some students assume they will have the same classmates and sit in the same room. Imagine their anxiety when they find many new faces awaiting them.
Prepare a One-Page Profile of Your Student
Help the school staff get to know your child. Prepare a one-page profile of your student to introduce them to school employees, bus drivers, and after-school program leaders. Describe the student's strengths and interests, and include a photo. If appropriate, involve your child, so he or she can learn how to advocate, she said. An advance visit to the school might be a perfect time to hand out the profile.
Changing Classes for the First Time? Walk the Route.
Learning to navigate through crowded, loud areas to get to class on time can pose a challenge for any child. This can be especially daunting for students with autism, who may have sensory sensitivities or a poor sense of time.
Practice walking to your child's classroom and between the clasroom and other areas in the school grounds. You can even ask for a map, so your child may chart their routes and learn the school layout. Using a timer, see how long it takes him or her to move from class to class. If it takes them 15 minutes to do it when they're by themselves, then you know there's a problem. Those students will need more time for practice.
Besides learning the routes to classrooms, students should visit and become familar with the library, gym, front office, first aid areas, toilets, canteen or any area that may be important to them.
Re-set Bedtime and Morning Routines at Least a Week before School Opens
During the holidays, your child may have gotten used to going to bed later, waking up later, and having a leisurely breakfast in front of the television. Switching gears to a school schedule could be difficult without some time to adjust. About a week or so before school begins, start re-establishing bed-time routines.
Besides going to bed earlier, and waking up earlier, students can do other tasks at home to prepare for the first day of school They can pack items in a backpack, and leave it by the front door, a visual reminder that school will starting soon.
Organize Any Special Education Documents
Put your special education documents together in a folder, cabinet or drawer – anyplace you can find them quickly. If an issue arises with the school, you should keep records of your contacts with school staff, such as emails and written logs of calls and meetings. Bring a list of your concerns to meetings with school teachers and leaders, so you do not forget to mention something.
Start the New Year without Baggage from the Past
Regardless of what happened last year, approach the new school year as a fresh start. Assume good intentions. If you had a bad experience with a school or teacher in the past, do not carry those emotions and feelings into a new academic year. Starting each year fresh with the school team is one of the best gifts we can give our kids.