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50 Back-to-School Tips from Autism Moms

August 13, 2023

Children with autism waiting for the school bus

Back-to-school time can be difficult for children with autism, who rely so heavily on routine and structure to get through their days. When the routine changes and school starts, it’s not just the kids who feel anxiety. Parents of children with autism spend a lot of time agonizing over ways to prepare their child for school. These 50 tips come from experienced Autism moms who have found success in easing their children back into the school routine.

  1. Write a new social story to practice greeting the new teacher(s).

  2. Write a social story about how starting a new school year will be exciting and they will meet many new friends.

  3. Visit the school, classroom, and teacher before school begins to familiarize the child with everything. If they will be changing classes or have a locker to open, practice the routes they’ll take to get from class to class and practice opening the locker several times.

  4. Tour the entire school so that they know where the closest bathrooms are, where the cafeteria is, and where the nurse’s office is.

  5. Make sure all teachers and counselors have copies of the most recent IEP.

  6. Schedule meetings or send introductory emails to the teachers to highlight the unique needs of your child and to make sure they have your contact information available.

  7. Take your child with you to shop for school supplies and let them pick their supplies and a new outfit for the first day.

  8. Talk regularly to your child as the summer winds down about how soon school will start; let them mark the days off on a calendar to count down the days.

  9. Arrange for your child to meet the bus driver and aide before the first day. If this is the first time they are riding a bus, see if the school can arrange a special bus rude day for new children so they can become accustomed to it before school begins.

  10. Have a special meal the night before school starts to celebrate the start of the new school year.

  11. Let your child help you pack their backpack with supplies the week before school starts, letting them know how exciting it is that they will get to go.

  12. Create a one-page information sheet about your child that stays in their communication book or backpack and talks about what they like and what makes them feel safe.

  13. Work with school administrators and your child’s teacher to designate a safe space for your child to go to if they need to destress or get away for a moment to regroup.

  14. Put your child on the school schedule two weeks before school starts, going to bed and getting up at the times they’ll have to for school. That way it is not such a huge adjustment.

  15. Use social stories to help your child work through anxiety about peak stress times, like lunch and gym (these times are the worst for experiencing bullying). If possible, arrange a lunch buddy for your child.

  16. If your child is in middle school or high school, help them find an organization method that works, whether it’s color-coded notebooks or labels for everything.

  17. Some children with autism struggle with communicating in the classroom, whether it’s answering questions when called on or telling the teacher they need to go to the bathroom. Whenever possible, work with the teacher to have alternatives, from writing a note to texting or emailing.

  18. Develop a getting-ready-for-school routine with your child. Include everything from getting dressed and eating breakfast to helping to pack a lunch and brushing their teeth. Some kids may benefit from a checklist to make sure they do everything each morning.

  19. Help your child pack the backpack and set out clothes the night before so that the morning is more organized.

  20. If your child is just starting school or attending a new school, go to the school ahead of time and take pictures – of the classroom, the hallways, the cafeteria, even the playground – and put together a book for your child to talk them through what it will be like to go to school there.

  21. Work closely with your child’s teacher in the last weeks of summer to understand what the school day will be like for your child. Talk to your child about what will happen during the school day.

  22. Don’t focus only on prepping for school – still go out and do fun things like have ice cream and go to the fair. Your child will be sensitive to your stress and anxiety about the coming school year and may feed off that.

  23. Don’t focus only on prepping for school – still go out and do fun things like have ice cream and go to the fair. Your child will be sensitive to your stress and anxiety about the coming school year and may feed off that.

  24. Normally, the IEP for the coming school year is completed the prior spring. If anything has changed in the supports or needs of your child, request a new IEP meeting where you can adjust goals.

  25. Talk to your child. Acknowledge their feelings (scared, anxious, nervous, shy) and let them know it’s ok to feel the way they do. Then focus on coping mechanisms that will help them get through the stressful feelings.

  26. If your child will be going to a daycare before or after school, be sure the daycare and the school have each other’s contact information in case something happens, and they need to communicate with each other.

  27. Shop for sensory friendly school supplies, like cushioned pencil grips.

  28. Supply sensory comforts for your child – a weighted blanket, a worry stone or worry beads, or other items that help them work through anxiety.

  29. Make organization easy for your child, as that is often one of the most difficult challenges. A back-of-chair hanger is can be easier for some children for storing supplies than in a desk or cubby. A checklist taped to the desk or inside a notebook can help keep the child on task.

  30. Work with your school’s team to develop a schedule that works for your child. This may mean a quieter space for lunch than the cafeteria, or a study hall between classes to help eliminate overwhelm. Remember, the schedule, like the education, can be individualized for your child.

  31. For middle school and high school students who struggle to stay organized, request a second set of text books for home. This gives them the ability to stay on task even if they forget to bring home the book.

  32. Request any accommodations you think will help your child gain confidence and experience success, whether it’s extra time to respond to questions during class discussion or extra time taking tests.

  33. Don’t be afraid to modify the IEP mid-year if something isn’t working or needs to change to address your child’s needs – whether it means adding new accommodations or removing some because they’re consistently meeting the challenges of the day.

  34. Practice social interactions with your child before school starts. This can include social stories, watching special shows that demonstrate interaction, or practicing scripted dialogues to help your child be more comfortable in a social setting at school. Even being able to tell someone their name can be a huge success.

  35. Depending on the verbal level of your child, have the teacher or aide write in a notebook every day to let you know what your child did that day at school. By knowing what they did and accomplished, you can have a more productive dialogue with your child when they come home even if they are unable to tell you about their day.

  36. Enable your child to have as much independence as possible by choosing easy-to-manage clothing (elastic waste pants, larger-sized shirts) and easy-zip backpacks.

  37. For children with sensory issues, regular writing utensils can be very difficult to use. Instead, provide them with extra thick pencils and crayons that are easier to hold on to.

  38. Many children with autism struggle to keep up with motor skills. From tying shoes to using scissors, they lag behind – and this can become embarrassing for them as they get older. You can build it into the IEP that creative assignments be done at home (where you can help with things like cutting) and buy elastic shoe laces that don’t need to be tied but can be used with any tennis shoe.

  39. For some children with autism, loud noises are especially startling and can create an insurmountable level of anxiety. In science and shop classes, as well as whenever there is a fire drill during which there will be a loud alarm, work with your team at the school to create strategies for your child – from allowing them to go to a room where the noise is quieter to finding an alternative to shop class.

  40. Spend a few minutes every morning prepping your child for that day. If you know what their schedule will be like for the day, talk them through it and help them visualize how it will go so that they are thinking and focusing on the day.

  41. If you have special tricks you use at home to deescalate your child when he is anxious or stressed, share those ideas and strategies with the teacher.

  42. When all else fails, it’s ok to take a mental health day and give your child (and you) a break from school for the day.

  43. Be flexible about how your child dresses and what clothes they choose to wear. Even if you put something out the night before, if your child wakes up and doesn’t want to wear the outfit that had been chosen, let them pick something else. Often, a small derailment can carry over through the rest of the day if you force the issue.

  44. Teach your child, to the extent possible, to advocate for themselves. If they have preferences or needs, if they don’t like something that is happening, they should feel that they have the right to speak up – to you and the teacher. If they don’t feel comfortable saying something at the time, encourage them to write it down.

  45. As much as we all want to send “healthy” foods with our children for lunch, it’s far more important to pack a lunch they’ll eat. Make sure to send some of their favorite comfort foods.

  46. Many children with autism are uncomfortable asking to go to the restroom and calling attention to themselves. For younger children, you can arrange for them to be provided with breaks as needed. For older children, you may need to arrange something where they can be five minutes late after lunch, so they can build a routine of going to the bathroom after lunch after the other students are gone.

  47. Drop by the school occasionally to see your child. If there is any risk that something is not working well for your child, an impromptu visit is more likely to reveal the issue.

  48. At the beginning of the school year, especially with a new student, see if you can ride the bus once or twice with them for a trial run. It’s a lot easier to discover what part of the experience is stressful to them if you are along for the ride.

  49. If you have time, volunteer in the classroom or at the school occasionally so that you can be nearby and get to know the staff better.

  50. Remember, your child is accomplishing and learning and discovering all the time. Let them go at their own pace and don’t compare them to others. Just celebrate every small milestone and moment they have.

Back to school season can be stressful, but hopefully these 50 tips from Autism moms will help you and your child adjust more easily. What tips do you have to share for getting back in the school groove?

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