From shopping for school supplies to packing lunches, the transition from summer into the new school year can be an exciting time of anticipation. Yet, for students with autism, it can also feel intimating and overwhelming, creating feelings of intense anxiety.

As the school bell rings-in unfamiliar faces, places, and spaces, there is much you can do to proactively prepare for the upcoming changes and better equip your child (and yourself) to settle successfully into this new normal.

How can families ease the back-to-school transition for their students with autism – and themselves? Here are some tips for making this time of year less stressful for everyone.

Remember, this new year is full of new beginnings and possibilities separate from any before. Being positive and excited as your child enters a new school year is one of the best supports we can give.

Ease into the back-to-school routine

Staying up later, sleeping in longer, or enjoying a lazy breakfast accompanied by a favorite video or app. What a relaxing way to start and end the day. But after all that downtime, going back to a rigid school routine can be a rude awakening.

To help your child ease into the new school year, there are several things you can do now to make the transition smoother for both of you.

  • At least one week prior to the start of school, reset your child’s bedtime and wake-up routines.  Waiting until the first day of school may have unanticipated challenges, so be sure to provide the best foundation by beginning before the start date.
  • Go through all the steps your child would take as if they were back in school: setting an alarm, brushing teeth, and other grooming routines.
  • Help them pack a backpack with needed supplies, make lunch, organize clothing, and learn to check that homework is in the bag.

Here’s a tip: If possible, have your child participate in back-to-school preparations, including school supply shopping, or ask your to child set their backpack at the front door as a nice prompt to remember that school is going to be starting soon.

Request a ‘sneak preview tour’

Before school starts up again, ask if you can have a walk-through of the school and/or meet and greet with staff. When we tell our children about what they may encounter at the start of school, we can never truly know the images this may conjure up for them. So, in the weeks prior to the first day of school, reach out to the school or district and request an appointment to tour the building and meet some of the staff they will be interacting with regularly.

  • Request a face-to-face ‘hello’ with your child’s teachers, as introductions help ensure that the staff members are at least somewhat familiar to your child
  • Ask which staff member serves as the main contact for your child (which may be your child’s case manager or other such title) and for yourself
  • Have your child’s teacher walk your child on the expected route, from one room to another, and let them know the subjects for each room. (This is key for children in the upper grades since they usually change classes)

Here’s a tip: Ask if it’s okay to take pictures of critical locations of the school such as the pick-up/drop-off area, classroom, restroom(s), cafeteria, library, recess area, office, and any other spaces your child will be expected to frequent to help lessen your child’s anxiety about navigating a new environment.

Create a fact sheet

Help your child’s educational team get to know them better by creating a profile of them with a photo and statements or lists of your child’s strengths, specific struggles, and topics of interests for your child.

Be sure to include any helpful information such as tips and calming techniques that have proven useful in preventing or diffusing difficult situations.

Having this information in a digestible format and readily available for reference will help classroom staff, bus drivers, and after-school program leaders accommodate your child’s needs and preferences to help give them the best school experience.

Practice tricky daily activities

If your child is expected to use a locker, it can be helpful to explain and model opening and closing a combination lock/keyed lock. Let your child know what items are typically stored inside a school locker. ­­ Your child may enjoy helping compile the list, and adding content such as corresponding pictures of staff, books, etc.

Here’s a tip: Make a list of items to pack for each class, lunch, or other school events and tape it to the inside of the locker for easy reference.

Meet with the case manager and IEP team(s)

A few weeks before the start of school, schedule a meeting with your child’s case manager (or case worker), who is responsible for overseeing your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), who will most often serve as the lead during IEP meetings.

Even if your child has been at the school for years and you’ve already worked with this group, it’s still important to make this an annual event. You never know when there may be a new case manager or IEP team member who needs to build a relationship with you and your child.  Be sure to call ahead, ensuring that staff have time allotted and are prepared to meet with you.

During this meeting, you can:

  • Request information about the team members, such as the credentials of those working closely with your child.
  • Discuss expectations and anticipated challenges your child may exhibit.
  • Talk to the speech therapist, occupational therapist, behavior analyst, and other team members to introduce yourself and your child, and to discuss information you or they need to know.
  • Ask for information about your child’s bus transportation including pick-up and drop-off times and locations.

Stay organized and ask for help if you need it

Keep all your child’s special education documents in one location so you can find what you need at any moment. Many parents use binders to organize paperwork, such as IEPs, behavior plans, consent forms, any written communications or meeting notes, and other critical information.

Keeping everything together and organized will help you be better equipped to address it with the school.

If you’re in need of support, consider asking a friend or family member to join you during meetings. Having someone else available to provide another set of ears or to take meeting notes can be an immeasurable help.

Be sure to let your IEP team know when you are bringing someone with you and/or when you plan to record the meeting so they can be prepared as well.

Here’s a tip: If you’re attending alone, ask if you can record the meeting for your reference or record.

Autism and ABA Services can help

BAYADA Autism and ABA Services utilizes Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, an applied science, for the treatment of autism and related learning or social disorders to reduce challenging behaviors and increase functional skills. Our highly trained and experienced behavior analysts and technicians work closely with you and your child to thoroughly understand their distinct set of strengths and challenges and design a customized plan to best help your child succeed at home, school, and in their community. Learn more about BAYADA’s autism and ABA services.

About the Author

BAYADA’s Behavioral Health services help children and young adults with autism or developmental disabilities achieve maximum independence in school, at home, in our center, and in their community. Using ABA therapy, an applied science, our behavior analysts and technicians design a customized plan to best help each individual succeed in every setting.

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