Autism Back To School Tips
Heading back to school after the long summer break can be a really stressful transition for some autistic students (and parents too!). So here are some ideas to make it easier for everybody.
PRACTICE & ROUTINES
Get into a routine
Knowing what will happen (and when and in which order) is the antidote to anxiety about change. Decide what your school day routine is going to look like, and start working your way towards that in the weeks before school starts. Start waking and going to bed a bit earlier each day, to avoid the jet lag effect that comes with a sudden shift to school hours in the first week back after summer.
Prepare for “How I spent my summer”
For me, one of the hardest aspects of the first day back at school was being asked to sum up what I did over the summer break or answering getting-to-know-you type questions. And that’s a common experience for autistic kids, especially when they can’t easily recall or communicate what they did or just don’t feel comfortable talking about themselves (especially to people they’ve only just met). So it can really help them feel more comfortable if they already have some answers to these questions prepared before the first day of school.
Practice getting ready for school
Run through the whole morning routine – waking up, eating breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth. This will help you find and prepare for the trouble spots, as well as help the kids to get familiar with the plan.
Practice getting to school
The route you take to school can be important or comforting for some kids, so take a trial run (while you’re relaxed and unhurried) to add an extra bit of familiarity to the first day. This is especially important if the route has changed, or the kids will be walking or catching a bus for the first time.
Practice being at school
There are a lot of activities that are unique to the school day – sitting still at a desk, lining up outside the classroom, raising your hand to ask a question. Turn some into a game so you can role play and develop these skills to give your kids a head start before the first day back.
Tell school stories
Even if your kids are going back to the same class and teacher this year, running through the school day in the form of a story will help remind them what to expect and what is expected from them. You could include things like their teacher’s name, which kids will be in their class and where their classroom will be.
Mark it on the calendar
Summer feels like it will last forever when you’re a kid, and “next Monday” doesn’t have much meaning when you don’t really care what day it is today. So make a visual reminder that school is coming – use a calendar or countdown where you can mark off the days and count how many there are left to go.
Practice writing or typing
It can often be hard to get back into using fine motor skills after a break, so build up strength with writing or drawing in the weeks before school starts. For those with dysgraphia, encourage them to spend some time typing so they can express themselves more effectively when they get back into the classroom (e.g. writing about something they did on their break).
Brush up on independence skills
It’s common for things like brushing teeth and tying shoes to fall by the wayside a little over the summer, or for the transition from school to vacation to trigger regression in some areas. Check where the kids are at with their independence skills and focus on putting in some extra practice before school starts.
Figure out your own routine
All the preparation in the world won’t amount to much if you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off (Aside: I don’t know who came up with that saying but OMG the visuals.) Take some time before school starts to figure out how you’re going to fit in all the stuff that you’ll need to do – making lunches, carpool, after school sports. If you know what you’re doing and when, it’ll be much easier to stay calm.
Teach kids how to get help
This is possibly the most important tip of them all. Knowing how, when and where to get help can be a really difficult skill to master, and it’s something that we don’t often think to explicitly teach. Having the confidence that help is available to you if things go wrong will make a huge difference to how scary that first day back at school can feel (there are more tips in the article Learning How To Get Help).
FOOD & EATING
Talk about food
The things that your kids eat at home during the summer might not adapt well to a lunchbox, so get them to help you choose stuff that they might enjoy eating when they’re at school. What do they like most about school lunches? What do they hate? What’s their current favourite food? (Note: This will probably change three more times before the end of summer).
Practice eating at school
Meal times in the playground can be really different to home – kids might need to be able to unwrap sandwiches themselves and open drink bottles, often while sitting on the ground. There might also be lunchtime cues or rules that you can brush up on (like listening for a bell or siren) or a sequence of events to practice, like eating first before they’re allowed to play.
Eat meals at school time
Over the long lazy summer days it’s easy for snacks and meal times to blend together, and the kids can end up grazing all day. This might make it hard on their tummies when they’re back at school and forced to wait a whole TWO HOURS before they get food (oh the humanity!), so in the last few weeks of summer try to edge back into regular meal times that are around the same times that they’ll be eating at school.
CLOTHES & EQUIPMENT
Shop early if you can
Having all new stuff isn’t always exciting, for some kids the change can be unsettling. Shop early for the things your kids need to give them time to familiarize themselves and learn how to use them. And don’t throw away their favourites from last year – even if that coloured pencil is worn down to the nub, the sight of a familiar friend inside a pencil case can be comforting when everything else around you is brand new.
Prepare new clothes
If your kids are hypersensitive, cut off all the labels (or look for sensory-friendly brands) and stretch out any tight neck or wristbands. Wash new clothes a few times to soften them up a bit and get rid of the strange smells (or add comforting familiar ones).
Wear in new shoes
New shoes can really be really uncomfortable at first, and even familiar old shoes can feel strange after going barefoot or wearing sandals all summer. Socks can also be an issue for many kids, and can feel distracting or even unbearable, so wear them in slowly and make sure they’re not too tight.
Air stuff out
A lot of back to school things have really strong odors for sensitive noses – book coverings, sticky labels, new books and clothes, the permanent markers used to write names on stuff… so leave them in an open space or outside for a day or two to reduce the smell.
VISITING THE SCHOOL
Visit the school and meet the teacher
A tour of the school grounds before school starts will really help kids to visualize what school looks like and where their classroom will be. If the school doesn’t allow you to visit before the first day, look at their website together or check to see if there are any videos online. Kids who enjoy maps might like to check the school out on Google street view, and plot a route from home to school.
Try to meet the teacher before the first day. This isn’t always possible however, especially if staffing decisions are made at the last minute (this happens at a lot of schools). If you can’t meet them before school starts, see if you can find a photo online or ask the school if they have one to help make the teacher a familiar face.
Write a needs summary or introductory letter for the teacher
Hopefully you’ll have lots of opportunities to talk to the teacher about your child and their needs, but you can get off to a great start by writing up a one-page summary to introduce your child and fill the teacher in on anything they need to know right away. Along with the usual stuff like strengths and challenges, you can include the signs that your child is overloaded and how to offer relief, and the things that might trigger a meltdown or cause sensory distress.
Bonus: There’s a free download on the Snagglebox Downloads page with tips and examples!
Make a map of the school
Having a visual guide that shows where the classes are, where to eat, where to get a drink and (most importantly) where to get help can make the new school seem just a bit more familiar on the first day, and can really help kids to feel more confident about moving around between classes.
Practice using a locker
These can be really daunting for kids, especially knowing how to work the lock. So if this is the first time that they’ll be using one, ask if you can have access in the week before school to get some practice opening the locker and putting their bag away. At least show them how the lock works, and spend some time practicing with it at home before they take it to school.
Plan sensory ‘escape routes’
Being overwhelmed at school can be a really frightening experience, and it’s ten times worse when you’re not familiar with the routine, the surroundings or the people. Plan ahead for the times when your kids might need to get themselves out of a difficult situation – this might be showing them where they can go for help, teaching them what to say when they need a break or making ‘advocacy help’ cards (check in the Snagglebox Downloads for an example)… the escape routes will be different for everybody, but the important thing is that you’ve planned ahead and given them a way to get out of the situation.
Talk about classroom rules
Some of the things that are expected in the classroom can be very different to the way things happen at home – you can’t go to the bathroom whenever you want and you have to wait to ask a question, for example. Talk about these rules and refresh their memories so they don’t inadvertently get in trouble on their first day.
Make a homework area
Nobody likes doing homework, but having a study area that’s welcoming will make it much easier to get the job done. Setting up a visually distinct homework space before school goes back will help ease the transition (make sure that it’s distraction-free with comfy seating and soft lighting).
Make a visual schedule
Turn the morning routine into a sequence of steps that can be followed and checked off as completed. Make a separate one for each person, so they know what they’ve still got left to do (and you can keep tabs of where everyone is up to).
BEFORE THE FIRST DAY
Build up their coping reserves
This is super important! For most autistic kids, dealing with the emotional, cognitive and sensory demands of the classroom can be totally exhausting, especially in those first days back. So try and keep the last week before school low-key and mellow – don’t rush around trying to fit in all the things that you were planning to do all summer, and make sure they get plenty of rest and sensory downtime.
(Try to) Relax!
Once you’ve done everything you can to ensure a smooth transition back to school for your kids, there’s nothing more to be done – so take a deep breath and have faith that it’s all going to work out okay. There are going to be bumps in the road – a lot of them, probably – but that’s a problem for another day… so enjoy sharing these last few days of summer.
Want all these tips as a free download? Okay!
This free ebook has all of the tips in this article, plus tons of additional photos and a handy checklist. Just click on the image above to grab your copy (no email address or fiddly things required), or head over to the Snagglebox Downloads page.
After you’ve finished getting everyone ready for the new school year, check out these other articles and resources on Snagglebox:
- Autism Preparation Kit For Teachers
- Autism Back to School Support Kit
- Stimming at Work and School
- 18 Tips To Make Transitions Easier
- Why Isn’t My Social Story Working?
- Learning How To Ask For Help
Have a great year everyone!
29 July, 2017 by Bec Oakley
- An Autistic’s Tips For Surviving The Start Of School by The Third Glance
- Info Sheet For New Teacher by Inner Aspie
- 7 Things You Might Not Know To Ask For When Transitioning Your Autistic Child To Middle School by Flappiness Is