By: Dr. Lori Babbitt, BCBA, LBA

Manager, Behavior Operations, BAYADA Behavioral Health

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.

Prepare Schedules Ahead of Time

Ahhh, summer! 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 he or she 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.

Insider tip: Have your child set their backpack at the front door as a nice prompt to remember that school starts soon.

Schedule a ‘Tour’ of the Campus

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, schedule an appointment to tour the campus and allow your child to become more familiar with their surroundings. Be sure to:

  • 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)
  • 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)

Insider tip: To help lessen your child’s anxiety about navigating a new environment and routine, 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.

Prepare a One-Page Profile of Your Child

Help staff get to know your child better by creating a profile of them with a photo and statements or lists of the specific strengths and interests of your child. Be sure to include tips and  techniques that have proven useful in preventing or diffusing difficult situations. This information will help teachers,  other 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 Locker navigation

If your child is expected to use a locker, it’s helpful to explain, model, and practice opening and closing a combination lock/keyed lock. Let your child know what items are typically stored inside a school locker. ­­ It may help to make a list of necessary items for each class/event and tape it to the inside of the locker. Your child may enjoy helping compile the list, and adding content such as corresponding pictures of staff, books, etc.

Insider tip: Show your child how to hang a backpack on the hook to more easily access materials needed for the next class.

Meet with the Case Manager

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) and who often serves as the lead during IEP meetings. Even if your child has been at the school for years, it’s still important to make this annual event—there may be a new case manager who needs to build a relationship with you and your child.  

If possible, request a meeting with the entire IEP team. Be sure to call ahead, ensuring that staff have time allotted and are prepared to meet with you.

During your visit:

  • 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.

Organize Important Documents

Having your special education documents in one location helps ensure that you can find what you need at a moment’s notice. Many parents use binders to organize different sections in the myriad of paperwork, such as IEPs, Behavior Plans, Consent forms, written communication, data, and other critical information. If an issue arises, you’ll be better equipped to address it with the school.

Make the Most of Your Child’s IEP Meetings

Occasionally, IEP meetings can be stressful and overwhelming to a parent attending alone. If you’re in need of support, consider asking a friend or family member to join you. Having someone else take notes or simply provide another set of ears can help alleviate some of this discomfort. To ensure a smooth process, let your IEP team know when you are bringing someone with you and/or when you plan to record the meeting.

Insider tip: If you’re attending alone, ask if you can record the meeting so you’re sure you’re clear on everything discussed.

Letting Go of Baggage from Past Years

Last year may have included challenges for which you still have negative feelings. Do your best to remember that this new year is full of new beginnings and possibilities. Being positive and excited as your child enters his or her new school year is one of the best supports we can give our children.

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