The first day of school can be nerve-racking for any parent but maybe even more so for a parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Common parental worries about whether a child will behave, make friends, and succeed academically are heightened by concerns about your child’s additional sensory issues, interpersonal challenges, difficulties with self-regulation, and/or a preference for sameness or routine. The good news is the transition to school can be eased with sufficient preparation and the following tips can be utilized for both children with ASD and their neurotypical peers to start school with their best foot forward!
Tour the School: It will be beneficial for your child to become familiar with the new school environment. You can start by pointing out the school while driving by in your car. As the school year gets closer, consider taking your child into the school for a tour. Teachers and administrators are generally around a couple of weeks prior to the start of the school year and you could walk around the halls, learn the location of important places (main office, lunch room, restrooms, etc.), and visit your child’s classroom. Take photos inside the school to create social stories and review them with your child later. The playground will be a key location of you child’s elementary school experience and we encourage you to visit the playground during the summer/evening hours if it is open for free play.
Meet Important People: Children with ASD sometimes have difficulty developing and maintaining relationships with others. One of the most important relationships is your child’s teacher. Contact the teacher about having a meet and greet for your child to become familiar with their teacher. Other school VIPs for your child to meet are the principal, nurse, and bus driver. Again, take photos.
Share Information: Contact your child’s teacher to share information regarding their strengths, daily living skills, academic abilities, and any concerns. Be sure to communicate any strategies you have found helpful for child’s behavior. For example, a brief calm down time may be helpful for sensory overstimulation. If your child uses a tablet or any other device for communication (i.e., PECS), offer some instructions to the teacher.
Develop Social Stories: Time to put all those photos to use! Social stories help children navigate social situations and interactions. Stories are presented in a one sentence at a time format (one sentence per index card). For example, a story might read, “When I get to school, I say ‘hi’ to my teacher (card one with photo)” and then, “I put my backpack in my cubby (card two with photo).” Creating and reviewing these stories with your children teach them rules to follow at school and ways for handling social situations. Another social story may start with, “Bobby said ‘I don’t want to play with you at recess.’”
Read Books: Another method for storytelling is relying on children’s books. As you can imagine, numerous books are available to help young children prepare, and even cope with worries, for school. Some favorites of our favorites are Kindergarten, Here I Come by D. J. Steinberg, The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing, and Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate. These are great additions to your bedtime stories the few weeks prior to school.
Create Visuals: Your soon-to-be kindergartener does not possess the same concept of time as us adults, so visual reminders often help them grasp time. One way to prepare for kindergarten is having a countdown calendar where they can cross of the days a week or two before the start of school. A visual schedule can outline the child’s day once they are enrolled in school. You may be able to develop a general outline based on your conversation with their teacher. An example of this schedule would include photos that show: Breakfast (pancakes), commute (bus)/car), school (group work), art (crayons), lunch (lunch bag), recess (playground), reading (book), commute (bus/car), and home (home). Best practice is to keep visual schedules brief.
Establish Routines: Both neurotypical children and those with ASD can struggle adapting to even minor changes in the lives, so as summer winds down you can begin transitioning to a consistent school year routine. Start by slowly moving bedtime and wake up times earlier in the day over the course of a week. Adhering to an evening schedule can also assist children prepare for school. For instance, there could be bath time, pick out school clothes time, story time, and bed. Morning routines are just as important and may involve breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, fix hair, put on shoes, get backpack. Visual schedules may be useful reminders until your child can follow the routine. Those of you who parent children with ASD my want to include a greater level of detail for routines. For example, you would want to consider breakfast options if you have a picky eater, plan out additional time if there are issues with self-care, or think through clothing options if your child is sensitive to textures.
Teach Coping Strategies: Just like we prepare children for school with crayons and paper, we also want to supply them coping skills and the ability to express their feelings. Regarding feelings identification, you can practice making feelings faces (sad/happy/angry/frustrated/etc.) in mirror with your child so they can learn facial expressions. Social stories can also include emotional facial expressions, so the child learns how others may look when they experience an emotion in a situation. Learning coping strategies will teach children how to self-regulate if their emotions are becoming intense during the school day. Some strategies include deep breathing, taking a break, talking to the teacher, and thinking happy thoughts. You could create a coping skills bag for your child to take to school including items like bubble-wrap to pop, stress ball, activity book, Rubik’s cube, or pipe cleaners among others. For the parents with children who experience sensory overstimulation, provide the teacher with sensory items that assist the child calm down like a fidget, chew toy, weighted vest, sensory bottle, or light-up toy.
By putting some forethought, and a smidge of creativity, your preparation will hopefully get your child on a smooth start to kindergarten. We also encourage you be frequently communicating with your child’s teacher during the school year to ensure a team approach to your child’s education and emotional functioning.