The transition from looser summertime schedules to the rigidity of the school day can be tough for any student. But for students with autism, the shift can be especially hard to navigate. That’s because it’s very common for people with autism to be very inflexible with their daily routines, and changes to the established daily pattern of activities can be difficult if not traumatic. Going back to school also means more social interaction, new people and lots of unknowns - things people with autism struggle with.
Making the leap from spending time with friends and family in familiar environments over the summer to the much more socially-complex environment of school with its own set of routines and schedules can be unbearably intimidating for students with autism. But there are lots of things parents can do to help their child with autism prepare for the new school year.
Julie Tracy is a speech-language pathologist and co-founder of Urban Autism Solutions, a non-profit in Chicago that works with young adults with autism to help them transition from high school to adulthood. Julie is also the mother of John, 30, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. She remembers the transition from summertime to the classroom for John was always a stressful time. “A lot of it is fear of the unknown,” says Julie, “especially for students entering a new school.”
Here are the five things Julie recommends to help ease your child’s transition back to school:
1. Understand that transitions can be difficult so plan ahead as much as possible. Use your child’s preferred method of communication to organize a timeline: create a calendar and a visual schedule so your child knows what to expect
2. Try to visit the classroom or building with your child and if possible, meet their teachers in advance of school starting. “This could be my most important piece of advice,” Julie says. “It can lessen anxiety by turning an unknown into a known.”
3. Take some photos of the school and classroom for reference. “Having a visual record your child can view with you at home helps reduce some of that fear of not knowing what to expect,” says Julie. “It all goes back to doing what you can to make the unknown familiar in advance.”
4. Create social stories with your student about school - what are some of the activities, schedules and plans for the year? Role-play common scenarios together, like getting lunch in the cafeteria, approaching teachers for help and navigating to and from school
5. Teachers are your on-the-ground support system once your child walks through the school doors! It doesn’t hurt to write a note to your child’s teacher about your child’s particular sensitivities and to let them know that you stand firmly on their side and will help and support classroom activities and learning as much as possible.
While preparing for the new school year, it’s also easy to get frustrated and derailed by your child’s anxiety. “Don’t let the anticipation of school rob the family of the end of summer activities that they still enjoy,” says Julie.