Back-to-school marks a time of adjusting to new teachers in a new classroom setting, meeting new friends, and sharpening those brand new pencils into a perfect point. For children on the autism spectrum, who tend to struggle with change, this transition is much more complex. In an article for The Daily Beast, Priscilla Gilman describes the difficulties her son, Benj, and other children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face every fall. I’ve summarized some of her observations here, as well as a few suggestions on how to ease the transition.
Many individuals with an ASD thrive most when adhering to a routine. When the routine is disrupted, they often do not know how to react. This is why changes associated with beginning a new school year become multiplied for students with autism. The transition brings demands and expectations that didn’t exist during an unstructured summer. Changing sleep schedules also presents challenges, as autistic children already tend to have disordered sleep. Routines used for self-comfort, such as lining up toys, may be inhibited by the increased busyness of daily life, and therapeutic activities, such as spending time in nature, may no longer be available with the changing seasons.
Transitioning from a familiar home environment to the school environment often results in a bombardment of new stimuli. Students with autism struggle to read facial expressions of new peers and teachers. Sounds common in school settings, such as fire alarms, passing-time bells and crowded lunchroom chatter, create a sensory overload that can be difficult to handle. In addition to new stimuli in school, children sensitive to temperature and texture may also have to adjust to the sensory effects of a new season.
Anxious parents await a child’s return after the first day of school with a barrage of questions – How was your first day? How do you like your teacher? Have you made any new friends? Gilman explains that many children with autism cannot “recount their experiences or express their feelings with ease and clarity, so parents can be at a loss to understand what their child is going through, and issues don’t get resolved as quickly as they would were the child able to report them immediately.” Parents of nonverbal children face an even scarier experience, as they are often unable to elicit any sort of answers about their child’s school experience.
Easing the Transition
For parents who feel a sense of protective anxiety about sending their child back to school, there are ways to ease the transition.
Before School Starts
- Visit the school ahead of time, preferably on a day that’s not too busy. Tour the classroom, playground, lunchroom, bathroom and any other areas your child will spend time in. Meet the teacher, and if seat assignments have been made, ask to let your child sit in his or her seat.
- Introduce changes slowly. Buy clothes and school supplies in advance so your child can get used to them. Prepare for the new school schedule with incremental changes in bedtime and wake-up time.
- Continue to mention school. Utilize books and videos as a guide for the transition. Consider taking pictures of your child on his or her tour, and make your own picture book to increase familiarity with the school. Mark the day on the calendar and create a countdown. The more school is discussed in the weeks leading up to the first day, the more comfortable your child will become.
- Create open lines of communication with teachers, administrators and aides early on. Start planning ways to best address your child’s needs.
During the School Year
- Continue open lines of communication and act as a resource for those working with your child. Determine what is the best mode of communication; consider a communication notebook or another method that allows daily remarks and insights from the teacher. Put current teachers in touch with educators who have had success with your child. Educate others on what works best for your individual child.
- Avoid sensory overload. Determine ways to minimize sensory bombardment, and establish a place your child can go when things become too much to handle.
- Establish routine and learn what works best for your child in a school environment. Consider color-coded school supplies, or other systems that create stability and organization for your child. Always try to highlight his or her strengths when deciding on new methods.
Even with sufficient preparation, every year holds the potential to bring new challenges. Blogger Jean Winegardner provides a unique perspective on her son’s kindergarten and first grade years, but admits she doesn’t know what to expect as his second grade year quickly approaches.