13 ways to help prep a child with autism for back-to-school season
The end-of-summer countdown has begun, and while most kids aren’t thrilled with the prospect of going back to school, the transition can be especially tough for those with autism. Three experts share their best tips for making the process smoother—for children of all ages.
While going back to school each fall can be tough for any student, it’s particularly challenging for children and teens with autism, especially if your son or daughter is transitioning to a new school.
“Most people with autism have trouble with any changes in routine, so they may find it hard to go from camp or summer school back into the classroom,” explains Gahan Pandina, Ph.D., Senior Director, Venture Leader, Janssen Research & Development, who’s currently developing a system known as JAKE™, or the Janssen Autism Knowledge Engine, for measuring autism symptoms so studies can better test treatments for the condition.
The good news: Most children with autism will do just fine if they are given some support along the way.
So we reached out to some experts for their top tips for helping to make the back-to-school transition as smooth and stress-free as possible.
If your child is in elementary school …
Visit before the school season starts. It’s a good idea to arrange a tour a couple of weeks before classes start, so your child can become familiar with the building and any room she may spend time in, suggests Connie Kasari, Ph.D., an autism specialist and professor of human development and psychology at UCLA.
While there, take pictures of the school, so you can create a book depicting what your child can expect to see each day. (You can find templates for inspiration here.)
Consider taking more than one advance trip to the school, too, to increase your child’s comfort level.
Set up a visual schedule. Kids with autism often find it difficult to understand and follow instructions, which can make following a morning routine difficult, Kasari notes. So consider drafting up a schedule or creating a reminder strip that outlines exactly what your child needs to do in the AM, including photos of how to do it, such as putting on a backpack and waiting for the bus.
“This teaches kids as young as 5 the importance of self-reliance,” Kasari says. “They can look at the schedule and figure out what’s next all by themselves.”
Create a student passport. This is a simple one-page document with a photo of your child that details likes and dislikes, how he communicates, things he can do himself, things he needs help with, what motivates him, and any sensory issues or triggers he may have.
“It’s hard for a teacher to go through each kid’s particular needs with a fine-tooth comb when she may have multiple children in her classroom with special needs,” Kasari explains. “This way, teachers have something easy to refer to during the day.” You should also consider giving one to the school’s therapist, as well as a modified one for the bus driver.
Plan a play date. Once school starts, set up some meetings with new classmates so your child can become comfortable with his peers more quickly, Kasari suggests.
Set up a safe space. It’s important to reach out to your child’s teacher before the school season starts to identify a place she can go for a few minutes if she feels overwhelmed or tired.
“It may seem like a little thing, but it can allow children with autism to regain control of themselves, so they can get back to work,” says Lisa Goring, chief program and marketing officer at Autism Speaks.
If your child is in middle school …
Do a dress rehearsal. Graduating from grade school to middle school is a big transition—this may be the first time your child has to switch classrooms and work with different teachers, Pandina notes.
The best way to help your child navigate this is through practice. So before the school year starts, do a trial run to help your child find his locker, show him how to use his lock and walk from classroom to classroom. If you can get your child’s daily schedule in advance, so you know exactly where he will be going, even better. As a follow-up, create visual or written schedules of the routine for handy reference.
Readjust your child’s sleep schedule. All kids struggle with the shift from more laid-back summer days, but for children with autism, switching to an earlier wake time can be particularly challenging.
Begin tweaking their sleep and rise times one to two weeks before school starts, Pandina suggests. If they’re waking up at 9:30 currently, and they need to be up at 7 AM for school, move their bedtime and wake-up times back by 30 to 45 minutes each week. Offer positive reinforcement—like stickers or praise—each morning when they get out of bed at the right time.
It’s never too early to start thinking about what comes next: Only about a third of young adults with autism attend college, and only about half have a paid job six years after high school graduation, according to the journal Pediatrics.
Check in via an app. When your kids are younger, it isn’t such a big deal to hang around the classroom after drop-off, or call the principal’s office for a quick check-in. But in middle school, nobody—teachers, staff and, most importantly, your kid—loves a helicopter parent, Kasari says.
Her suggestion: Check in with your kid’s teacher via an app, such as ParentSquare or ClassDojo. Many schools now regularly use these types of apps to send you photos and texts throughout the day.
Look for a lunch buddy. Lunch can be the most challenging part of the day for a student with autism, since it tends to be unstructured. It can also become more stressful in middle school because, unlike in elementary school, there usually aren’t assigned tables, so your child will have to figure out where to sit by herself.
As with other routines, it’s helpful to set up a visual schedule that walks your junior high student through standing in line, ordering food, finding a table and clearing away his food. You can also ask the school to find several peers who can be “lunch buddies” who can sit with your child, which may also help prevent teasing and bullying from other classmates, Goring suggests.
If your child is in high school …
Create a color-coding system. Use different colored notebooks and binders for each individual school subject (for example, blue for science and red for reading) to help keep your child organized and make it easier to distinguish between assignments, Goring says.
Set up after-school activities. Many parents don’t realize that public schools are legally obligated to provide support for extracurriculars, such as the ninth-grade sports, Goring says. These types of activities are a great way for your teen to build self-confidence and friendships, so talk to your child about a few things she may be interested in for the fall. Then let the school know as soon as possible, so they can get an aide or other assistance in place.
Practice self-care. Come adolescence, it’s key to teach the importance of hygiene and good grooming, especially now that school has started. Make a checklist of activities to help your teen keep track of what to do—showering, putting on deodorant, brushing his teeth and hair—and post it in the bathroom. You can also put together a hygiene kit that has everything he needs to make it easier.
Start planning for the future. Even if your teen is just starting high school, it’s never too early to start thinking about what comes next: Only about a third of young adults with autism attend college, and only about half have a paid job six years after high school graduation, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.
“Oftentimes, it’s because they’re not getting the proper support they need to, say, attend college independently,” Goring says. “This is why parents really need to be thinking about what classes their children should be taking to both challenge them academically and provide them with social and life skills.”
If you think your child will need extra help taking the SAT or ACT, for instance, the beginning of the school year is the time to ask for it. Those first few weeks are also the time to set up meetings with school guidance counselors and other members of your child’s team to discuss what needs to be done so she can get her high school diploma—and possibly pursue college.
Of course, autism is a spectrum, Pandina points out, and not all children with the condition are destined for higher education. Even so, he says, this is the time to create realistic goals for your child and begin working toward them, so they can continue to grow and achieve to their fullest potential.