The beginning of the school year, and the start of each school day, can create potentially stressful situations for you and your child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Most children with ASD not only need routines, but they also require them in order to cope with an ever-changing environment. This article is designed to help prepare your child for the transition to a new year and for the beginning of each school day.
For children with ASD, who typically have difficulty with transitions, the daily requirement of getting up and ready for school can cause tremendous stress and frustration. Starting school can present extreme difficulties for children with autism because children with ASD are required to conform to unpredictable and demanding schedules, rules, behaviors, and social norms.
As you prepare your child for a school year, begin by introducing new school supplies gradually. When purchasing clothing attempt to keep within the parameters of what fabrics, colors, and textures are suitable for your child. Tags may need to be cut out of clothes and all items should be clearly labeled. Depending on your child’s specific needs, select materials that will appeal to his or her unique interests. For example, your child may want a certain cartoon character on his or her lunch box. For another child, this might pose too much of a distraction. Item can be purchased, set aside out of view, and introduced gradually. By the time school begins, however, your child needs to have the chance to become acquainted with each new item.
Visit the school, discuss, and walk through routines. For example, pack your child’s lunch box and have a picnic in the lunch area at the school prior to the beginning of the year. As teachers begin to set up their new classrooms plan to visit the school. If possible take your child to see the classroom, the nurse’s office, the library, etc. You also have the right to arrange a meeting before the school year starts. This is a good opportunity to get to know the team members and to make certain that your child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is up-to-date. Discuss concerns with the support staff and let the school know what your child needs in order to be successful. Request a follow-up meeting a week or two after the year begins to iron make adjustments.
Many children with ASD respond well to visual stimuli and are comforted by what is familiar; establishing and maintaining a daily routine helps your child feel secure. Create a daily picture schedule to help your child prepare for the day and to transition between home and the external world. You may want to use picture cards. These cards can be laminated and attached with Velcro to laminated cardboard. This daily schedule will help your child with transitions. The picture schedule includes photos in chronological order that represent key transitional activities. Pictorial schedules may, but do not have to, include captions.
If a picture schedule is used at home it may readily be adapted into the school setting. A picture symbol, such as a question mark, can indicate when an unexpected or unpredictable event may occur. Becoming familiar with such a symbol will help even the unexpected become more predictable. Another idea is to use timers and alarms to indicate the time for a transition from one activity to another. Your child’s temperament will help in determining which schedules and devices will alleviate rather than promote anxiety.
Social stories that explain procedures and routines may also help your child to understand events and behavioral expectations.
Keep an open line of communication with the school, particularly the principal and teacher(s). While email is helpful, communication logs provide a hands-on method for relaying information between home and school. A small notebook for daily comments can eliminate hours of frustration for your child and his or her caretakers/teachers. Any change in routine can be documented in order to facilitate an understanding of unsettling events or changes in your child’s routine.
While every child with ASD is unique the suggestions listed above have proven helpful in preparing for a smooth transition to a new school year and, with minor adjustments, to the daily school routines.