A version of this article first appeared in iancommunity.org.
Some years ago, a back-to-school commercial showed a father dancing through the aisles of a school supply store, glum-faced progeny in tow, to the tune of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Dad was gleeful that school would be starting soon; his kids, not so much. Returning to school after summer vacation can be hard for any child. For a student with autism, this time of year can be especially stressful. Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have trouble adjusting to change. In fact, "insistence on sameness" and "difficulties with transition" are symptoms of ASD.1 A new classroom, schedule, teachers, classmates – or new school – can trigger distress far behind the typical back-to-school blues. "For many learners with autism, transitions are the toughest part of schooling," according to an article by educator Paula Kluth Ph.D. "Moving from classroom to classroom or teacher to teacher can be stressful enough, but moving from building to building is almost always a process filled with anxiety and trepidation."2
ADJUSTING TO A NEW SCHEDULE
Parents who participated in the Simons Simplex Collection (SSC) autism research project shared their tips for easing the back-to-school bumps and jitters for children with autism.
"My son had trouble transitioning from not having a schedule in summer to having a strict schedule in school, just like he had trouble transitioning to a new season and going from not wearing a jacket to needing a jacket," explained Michelle Meitz, mother of a 12-year-old with ASD in the Chicago area. Certainly, it can be very hard to sleep in all summer and suddenly have to wake up early, climb on a school bus, and begin an unfamiliar routine. So Ms. Meitz advises setting the alarm clock earlier in the days before school starts, and making bedtime earlier, too.
Dr. Peter Gerhardt, an autism educational expert, endorses such an approach. In an article for Autism Speaks, he recommends gradually changing a child's wake-up time over the four weeks before school begins. Provide positive reinforcement to the child, such as juice or praise, for waking up at the new time. Then, as the weeks pass, praise or reward the child for waking up on time and getting dressed. This approach uses a behavioral technique called shaping to change a child's behavior (his bedtime and wake-up time) through small, gradual steps that receive positive reinforcement.3
VISIT THE CLASSROOM BEFORE THE OPENING BELL
Several parents said they worked with their schools to make sure their children could meet their teachers and visit classrooms before the first day of school. Teachers usually arrive a few days early to set up their classrooms and may be available then. It's especially helpful when your child will be going to a new school, or making the transition from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school.
In her article "Getting Ready for School," Dr. Kluth says students can benefit from a preview of their school. "Many students with autism will profit from seeing, experiencing and learning about the school before they show up on the first day."2
Many schools offer a back-to-school open house or orientation for all students, but the noise and bustle of such events can be over-stimulating or distressing for some students with ASD.
One mother from Georgia said, "The best thing we've ever done – and it started in second grade – is we take my son to meet his teachers before school starts. He can't do an open house because it's too chaotic. We knew if he went in thinking that [open house] was what school was like, we'd never get him in the door the first day."
PREPARING FOR THE FIRST DAY OF MIDDLE SCHOOL
When transitioning to a new school, these early visits can be especially helpful. The middle school transition can be challenging because students may be doing many things for the first time – switching classes every hour, using lockers, changing into gym uniforms, riding buses, and negotiating big or crowded hallways.
Amy Cannazzaro, a former teacher, and her son, Parker, made a special effort to prepare for his first day of middle school. "We went a week ahead of time, found his locker, practiced using his lock, got his schedule, and practiced walking from classroom to classroom," she said. "We tried to meet his teachers."
Parker was riding a school bus for the first time. So they talked to the bus driver and found him a buddy who would make sure he got off the bus at the right stop, she said.
How did his transition go? "It was easier on him than on me, honestly," said Ms. Cannazzaro, who lives near Detroit.
Another tip for visual learners: create a photo album or scrapbook of the new school to help the student with autism become more familiar with it. Kim Kuiken said her son's book had photos of the middle school's entrance, administrators, resource officer, coach, lockers and cafeteria, along with helpful information about the school's layout and operations. Her son also made an advance visit to the school in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, area.
If visiting before school starts is not an option, your student may be able to meet his new teacher before summer starts, especially if he or she is staying in the same school. Kristin Lupo finds out who her son's teacher will be for the fall, and he visits the teacher at the end of the previous school year. "He sees the new classroom and the new teacher, so when the first day of school comes, it's not a totally new environment," she said. Her son is entering his last year of elementary school in Connecticut.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU: SHARING INFORMATION WITH TEACHERS
Schedule-permitting, these types of visits might be a good time to share information about your child's likes and dislikes with the new teacher or case manager.
Teachers also may request such information. According to Dr. Kluth, teachers often ask students or families to complete a survey about the students' learning styles, hobbies, preferences and concerns. Students with "unique needs and abilities" may wish to create a portfolio of photos, artwork or other personal information to introduce themselves to the teacher, she says.2
The start of a new year can be challenging for school personnel, too. Ms. Lupo recommended keeping your child's special education plan – the Individualized Education Program (IEP) – in front of you. That way, you can keep track of whether your child is getting the help and services he's supposed to receive, such as speech, occupational or physical therapies.
"At the beginning of the school year, if services aren't starting and the new teacher is overwhelmed, you can say to her, ‘My child isn't getting these services,'" Ms. Lupo said. "But give them two weeks."
She keeps her son's IEP in a folder in a file box for easy access, she said. If you have questions about IEPs, she recommended contacting your state's parent center for free information on navigating the special education process. Every U.S. state has "at least one Parent Center that provides information and training to parents of children with disabilities, birth to 26," according to the federally-funded Center for Parent Information and Resources.4 See below for ways to find yours.
Some school years have a bumpier start than others, parents said. So it's important to keep open the lines of communication with teachers, through conversations, emails or notebooks that travel between home and school daily, they said. "You have brand-new teachers and teachers who are seasoned, but everyone is on a learning curve of how to work best with each kid," explained Ms. Meitz.
Thank you to the SSC parents who generously contributed their time and experiences to this article in hopes of helping other families affected by autism.