Transitioning back to school after the summer break can often be a challenging time for children and teens, but it can be especially difficult for youth with autism. Because autism covers a large spectrum and presents differently in every person, I would like to share several strategies for ways to help your child with autism feel that they belong and have significance during this time of change.
Ease back into a school-based sleep schedule.
Those early mornings will be here soon! Begin a ritual of getting the kids to bed and waking them earlier at least a week before school starts.
Organize your family’s calendar.
All the open houses, school holidays, and events need to be marked clearly on one calendar where everyone can see upcoming events. This can help you and your child plan your week and possibly avoid surprises and possibly a meltdown.
Visit the school and meet the teacher.
If your child can get to know his new classroom in advance, this makes him more comfortable when he returns. This is especially important with a child who has any back to school anxiety or if he is attending a new school. Let the middle or high school student walk through his projected schedule. Meet each new teacher and share any pertinent concerns with them. Checking out where the lockers are and finding out how the lunchroom works will go a long way in helping your child feel more prepared when he starts school.
Create a structured morning routine.
Is there anything crazier than trying to get out the door in the morning while trying to find last night’s homework, pack lunches, and finish your own breakfast? Oh, and did the kids brush their teeth? Do a little pre-planning and write out a morning to-do list. You could even laminate it for the kids to check off each morning as they complete tasks. This helps them remember what is still needed without you repeating yourself a million times.
Create a launchpad!
I wish I had thought of this when my kids were small. A launchpad is where all the next day’s needed items are gathered such as school bags, coats, shoes, and uniforms. When you have a place for everything, your child learns how to stay organized! Do as much the night before as possible. When they return home, make sure all school items are put back in the same place for easy retrieval the next day.
Your children can help with many of the above-named tasks to make these go faster and easier. It may slow you down at first but do not miss teaching them a life skill to help you get out the door quicker. Once they are capable, it will be faster overall. Involve them in some of the smaller decisions to create ownership by letting them decide between two acceptable choices. The more your child does for herself, the more confident she will be.
Practice the new routines.
Try the new morning and evening routines. Enlist the help of your child or teen in what the new routines look like. Allow them to voice what works for them and which routines you might need to take a closer look at.
Stay positive about any stress or anxiety your children are expressing.
They take their cues from you. Help them to understand that adults can sometimes feel overwhelmed too. Take the opportunity to show them healthy ways to deal with that stress such as stepping away, counting to 10, or saying a prayer.
Encourage your child to share their feelings.
Help your child communicate their feelings, then validate the experience and learn to cope with these feelings. Change can be scary, especially for a person with autism. An example of validation and coping might be, “I know going back to school after the summer break can be scary and you might be feeling anxious. It is okay to feel this way. What can I do to support you?”
Help your child find a place where his or her unique strengths are valued and appreciated.
School can be a challenging place for any child or teen but especially for those on the spectrum. Help your child find a spot where they can shine. This could be a job or volunteer position where organizational skills are needed. They might find meaning in caring for animals at a local shelter or joining an art club or church youth group. Be creative and look at your child’s strengths. This will help to fulfill their need to belong and feel significant.