It’s now August. The lazy, hazy days of summer are quickly giving way to the start of the new school year. No doubt many parents (and even some students) are looking forward to opening day. But for many students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their parents, that opening day is one big transition that simply begins a series of daily changes that can be difficult, because many children with ASD find change challenging. But challenges can be overcome, and in this week’s blog post we’ll look at some suggestions and resources to help make the start of this school year easier than it could be.
When a child has difficulty with change and transitions, we first look at how to make the change less abrupt. This usually means giving information about the change in advance, things like when the change will occur, what will actually happen at that time, what the child will do and likely experience. Let’s look at how to prepare for this transition a little more closely:
When will the change occur? In classrooms and therapy groups, this typically means a schedule is posted in advance, and a warning (think football – 2 minute warning). But for an event that is days in the future, the planning and warning needs more than a clock and 2 minutes. You can use a calendar showing the day school starts, and then mark off or count down the days to help the child see that opening day is approaching.
What will happen? What will the child do and experience? Social stories can help with this. Depending on your child’s age and level of understanding, you might just tell your child a story that presents a standard day at school, or your might choose to write one with pictures. You can find information about social stories here and here, and a sample here.
A social story that is personalized for your child and pictures of your child’s school is more helpful than a generic story about school. If your child is returning to the same school, he already knows what the school looks like (unless there was major construction over the summer), and he hopefully has already met his teacher(s) and seen his classroom(s). But what if your child is going to a new school? Pictures of the school, pictures of teachers, even advance visits to the school and classroom can be helpful. And don’t forget to cover everything the child is going to do, such as how the child will get to school and return home, lunch or snacks at school, changes in home routines because of school (change in bedtime, or wake up or meal times), changes in when the child can play video games or watch TV (perhaps your child has to finish homework first, when there was no homework over the summer). There are some helpful information sheets on our website here.
Reviewing school rules (which are sure to be different from your home rules) can also be helpful. Most schools now practice “positive behavioral intervention and supports” (PBIS) and are likely to have some basic rules in place as part of their PBIS implementation. If you can get copies of these, it will help prepare your child not only for the rules governing his behavior, but it will familiarize your child with the words used in school related to behaviors. If you can’t get copies of your child’s school’s specific PBIS rules, you can find a generic “Rules for School” tip sheet here.
Give your child some skills to use when frustrated. Talk with your child about what to do when upset, or when he doesn’t understand the instructions at school. An example of how to stay calm can be found here.
And don’t forget to help your child’s teacher (and school if it is a new school) be prepared for your child. A written information sheet from you (or your older child) to school teachers or administrators can be helpful. This could include your child’s likes, what types of things are likely to cause your child to act out or have a meltdown along with strategies to deal with or prevent these situations. Hopefully these items are included in your child’s IEP, but it can be easier for the teacher to see this information in 1 or 2 pages than to find it in an IEP of 30 or 40 pages.
You may also have to start making changes in your child’s routine at home to get prepared for that first day of school. If your child has been “sleeping in” over the summer, it’s time to start waking up a little earlier each day to get ready for those earlier school days. This may also mean moving bedtime, and maybe even meal time. It might even mean your child needs to get dressed earlier in the day. Little changes each day can be a lot easier than a major change right before the start of school.
There are lots of resources available on the TAP website, as well as other places on the internet. Check out the following and see which you find most helpful:
TAP Printed Resources, which include things like riding the school bus, morning schedules, getting ready for bed, sleeping tips, tips on staying calm, and rules for school.
Articles on preparing for the start of school can also be found on the websites run by Autism Speaks, Pathfinders for Autism, Health Central, and the Stir. For a change of pace (along with some unusual spelling), you can see what the Raising Children Network (also known as the Australian Parenting Website) has to say about starting primary (elementary) school for children with ASD.
For more personal assistance and local resources, contact the TAP Center nearest you. TAP Centers have free Family and Community Resource Rooms (FCRRs) open to the public. Each FCRR is a little different, but all have knowledgeable staff available to answer questions you may have, and to help you locate and use resources and tools that best fit your situation.
School is fun for many children. With everyone working together, it can be fun for your child too!
Russell J. Bonanno, M.Ed.
TAP Program Manager