How to Help Your Child With Autism Have a Great Start for the New School Year
Once summer has ended, it is difficult for anyone to shake off the sunshine vibes and get back to school or work, and this is especially hard for children with autism. Saying goodbye to vacations, sleeping in, playing outside, getting into hobbies, and maybe even a more relaxed schedule is tough. This is even more true when all of that has to end and students must return back to school. After a summer off from school, getting started with a daily routine or accepting a new teacher, teacher’s aid, and classmates can be a challenge for those with autism.
Many children with autism are resistant to change or have a difficult time accepting an adjustment in their routine. Transitions are also challenging; therefore, predictability, familiarity, and habit are key for individuals with autism.
As a parent of a child with autism, you are probably already thinking about how you will help your child have a smooth transition back to school. If summer is winding down, this is the time to be proactive and come up with a plan to help him or her be successful going from home back to school.
These five tips can help ensure a smooth start of the school year for your child with autism.
- Talk about the new school year
- Meet the educators in advance
- Practice the new morning routine
- Prepare for emergencies
- Have a conference with the teachers
1. Talk about the new school year
One of the simplest yet most effective ways that you can get your child with autism ready for a new school year is to start talking about it several weeks in advance. Talk about the teacher’s name, bus driver, classroom number, and other details as you learn them. Discuss the school day schedule, such as when your child will get on the bus, what time school starts, and when lunch is.
Regardless if your child is verbal or non-verbal, communicating about going back to school is important. The more it is spoken about, the more comfortable with the topic s/he will be.
Here are a few ideas for parents to help them start talking about the school year:
- Have a few conversations on a daily basis surrounding school and education.
- Watch a TV show, movie, or YouTube video that features kids at school.
- Make art that has a school-theme.
- Read books about a child going to school.
- Generalize the discussion by having the SLP, doctor, or BCBA talk about school with your child.
- Go shopping for school supplies or a new outfit together.
- Play “school” at home with dolls and props.
There are many creative ways that parents can bring up school in daily conversations without making it super serious and intimidating. It’s not so much how you talk about school with your child, just that you do talk about school with your child.
2. Meet the educators in advance
Meeting your child’s educators in advance during their pre-planning can help reduce a lot of anxiety for both you and your child. It’s an easy step that is typically embraced and encouraged by schools.
Consider a tour of the school if it is a new school for your child. See if it is possible to meet with the principal or teacher before the first day of school. At many schools, the administrative staff starts to prepare for the new school year a few weeks before the first day of school. And teachers often begin preparing their classrooms several days in advance of the first day.
Even if your child is returning to the same school this year, you can still make an appointment to visit and meet the teacher, assistants, nurse, counselor, and principal before the school is officially in session.
Make the experience positive and reinforcing.
Get creative and create your own “school scavenger hunt” and look for important people, rooms, and items within the school. Play on the playground for a few minutes after visiting everyone if allowed. Grab a treat afterward.
Hopefully by doing this, your child will be less anxious and overwhelmed about the concept of returning to school.
Remember, if you seem anxious as the parent, your child will pick up on this.
3. Practice the New Morning Routine
According to Autism Speaks, it is a good idea to start practicing the new morning routine a few weeks before school starts. Children might get used to sleeping in or having a leisurely start to the day, so it is wise to begin the new routine early to get it down perfectly.
One idea is to have your child help you to make a morning routine visual schedule. These can easily be created online via an app or simply on Word, Docs, or Canva. If your child has a part in making the schedule and choosing the pictures that go with it, they might be more likely to follow it.
Some great benefits of using a visual schedule with your child with autism are:
- It helps utilize the child’s visual strengths and therefore provides a receptive communication system to increase understanding
- It helps the child to learn new things and broaden their interests
- It provides tools that allow the child to use skills in a variety of settings
- Predictability can help the child remain calm and reduces inappropriate behaviors
- The child can develop independence and resulting self-esteem
Once school starts, mornings can be more hurried and stressful. Practicing the new routine before school starts helps to identify potential snafus so that they can be addressed in advance.
4. Prepare for emergencies
It is unfortunate that schools must conduct regular lock-down drills and emergency preparedness drills in case of a threat to students. There is no way around this unless you choose to homeschool your child, and even then they should be involved in some sort of safety and emergency plan at home.
A fire, tornado, or intruder drill can be quite scary for children––autism or not. Most adults can’t even stand the noise of the fire alarm during a drill, so imagine how the students feel, especially students with sensory issues.
Prepare your child now for these drills and start practicing for emergencies before school starts.
You can do this by:
- Watching age-appropriate videos on emergencies and drills
- Reading social stories about various emergencies and what to do in them
- Talking about a time when your child went through a drill and how they felt
- Talk to a firefighter or police officer who is trained to speak with students about drills
These topics can be a bit sensitive and many adults are hesitant to bring them up to children; however, they must be prepared and know what to do in case of an emergency. It is better to be safe than sorry! Preparing for these at home prior to school starting up again can help relieve some of that stress when a drill at school finally does happen.
5. Have a conference with the teacher
If your child will have a new teacher this school year, it is a good idea to request a conference with them and whoever else will be in the classroom or working closely with the child. Many children with autism have special protocols, safety plans, or accommodations/modifications that the individuals working with them need to be aware of. This is also a wonderful time to discuss how the summer went, if there are any changes in behavior, services, medications, etc. that the teacher may need to know. Perhaps your child worked one-on-one with a BCBA over the summer and you want to share the progress they have made and give updates on goals and needs.
This doesn’t necessarily need to be a full-blown IEP meeting, but can be an informal parent conference. Keep in mind that parents are their child’s best advocate, and it is important for parents to feel comfortable discussing their child’s needs with school personnel. Teachers and others who work with your child will appreciate the open communication and transparency, as they are with them most of the day.
Don’t ever feel as if you cannot call a parent conference at any time. You have rights as parents in general, but especially parents with students who have special needs.
Conclusion to Tips for a Smooth Start of the School Year for Your Child with Autism
Going back to school is always inevitable––no matter how fast or slow summer goes, school days are just beyond the horizon. Children with autism often need some extra help preparing for back to school and parents are the best people who can help them. If you’re a parent of a child with autism, be proactive in July and August and begin having those school-related conversations with your child. Get creative with how you mentally and physically prepare them.
Hopefully these tips make the process of starting a new school year easier. Putting them to action early can prevent a problem before it happens. Each of these tips is designed to help a child with autism have a smooth start to the upcoming school year.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University
Updated October 2021