Autism can make transitions challenging, and back to school is no exception. Preparing your child for the new school year can be overwhelming. Our son is heading into his final year of elementary school, and over the years we have come up with some strategies to help ease the transition.
If your child is beyond early elementary like mine, scroll to the “Older Kids” section. I’ve got a couple of resources you won’t want to miss!
Preparing for the Transition
About a week before school starts, we like to get back into our school routine. This means no more late summer nights, setting an alarm for the morning, and getting out of bed sooner than we may like. Though it’s a bit heartbreaking to let go of summer early, it’s beneficial when the first week of school hits.
Packing up school supplies in advance relieves a lot of stress too. My son loves to pack/unpack his backpack a few times before the first day of school. When his teacher instructs him to get his supplies out, there are no surprises. He knows exactly where everything is.
If you’re able to drop off supplies the day before, make sure to bring your child with you. Letting them see the changes to the school and the classroom can be helpful. If it’s a new school, getting the chance to explore while the hallways are empty can be reassuring. If the school allows a visit before the first day back, try and make it so your child can feel more comfortable in the environment. Even a school they’ve attended for years will still have changed a bit over the summer.
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Make a Social Story
Ok, okay… we’re all sick of hearing about social stories. But they’ve really helped our family so I will never stop preaching their importance! Now that my son has developed more language, I can see the comfort he found in social stories when language wasn’t a tool he didn’t have. Lately, he will fact-check our days and weeks by confirming our schedule with me. For instance, he will say, “After lunch, we will go to the park, right?” or “On Saturday Dad does not go to work, right?”. Our family is quite routine, and his communication skills have improved so much that we no longer rely on social stories—but we still discuss things in this format.
*Note that there is a caveat to social stories. When creating one for your child, keep it limited to the facts of what they can expect from a situation. Avoid writing it with the intention of getting them to behave in a specific way.
An example of letting them know what to expect is:
The bus will drive to my house. My caretaker will wave goodbye to me as I get on the bus.
An example of attempting to get them to “behave” is:
When I get on the bus I must sit still, then my teacher will be happy.
Trying to manipulate the situation for the benefit of others is not the goal of social stories.
Instead of writing the story in a manipulative way that encourages the behavior you’d like to see, you’re setting them up for success by preparing them for what is inevitable. This preparation is emotionally regulating and will support your child in feeling safe throughout the transition period. Being emotionally regulated breeds success in all areas. No one feels safe and regulated when they feel they are being coerced into acting in a way to make others happy.
Social Story Creator Apps
If you don’t have time to create your own social stories, there are apps that provide customizable templates. Free trials that come with the initial download are great for a story or two. The extended versions can provide support for all kinds of life situations beyond the transition back to school.
One app I recommend is Social Story Creator & Library. Sharing stories with other users makes it easy to communicate between school and home. It also has the ability to create stories in any language. You can even print the stories if you prefer to have paper copies—or you can read them offline, which is great when you need more focused time in the classroom or at home. In-app purchases range from $0.99 to $39.99 CAD to unlock all of the app’s features.
A second app that you might like is the Courageous Kids app. It’s a little pricier with a subscription model that renews monthly for $7.99 or annually for $79.99. There is also a game called “Silly or Sensible” that your child can play to help them understand behaviors that are expected of them in certain situations. As we discussed above, social stories are not meant to be a manipulative tool to make your life easier by implying you need “good” behavior from a child. However, ignoring the fact that there are certain expectations of all of us when we participate in any public setting is not helpful. This game is meant to be a playful way to help guide your child through those trickier social situations that may be lost on them. Helping them understand what often comes naturally to many of us is a tough but necessary thing to balance throughout the course of their development.
Communicating with Your Child’s Teacher
When my son started kindergarten he had almost no language. Knowing he would be gone for hours without the ability to tell me what happened throughout his day was devastating. Thankfully he had an incredible teaching team, and we would regularly send pictures between home and school.
By allowing our son to look through the images with us at home, and with his teacher at school, he was able to try and formulate words based on what he saw in the image. Doing this helped him understand what it meant when someone asked a generic question like, “How was your weekend?”. His teacher would show him pictures I had sent her and say things like, “It looks like you went to the park. Did you like going on the swing?”.
When we looked at pictures from school, we would narrate what we saw in the images and say things like, “You drew a picture of a butterfly today. That looks fun!”. Though it took years for him to build his language and speed up his processing time, I have no doubt this laid a strong foundation for his conversation skills. He loved going through the pictures. Now he can tell me a lot of things about his day at school, without much prompting!
Getting everyone on the same page at school and home is key to success. Having different approaches between home, school, daycare, grandparent’s homes, etc. is confusing and leads to dysregulation for everyone.
Sending an “All About Me” booklet is an easy and achievable way to provide your child’s teacher with some information your child may not be able to communicate. This is a great first step to start the relationship of sharing visuals between home and school to help your child bridge the communication gap. If you’re not sure where to start, I’ve created an easy template for you to use and you can download it here.
Games can be tricky to play with autistic kids, but they are helpful when it comes to learning turn-taking. This might sound trite, but we take turns in every interaction we have—even basic conversation. It’s a must-have life skill.
Fast-paced games like Pop the Pig, Pop-Up Pirate, and Jumping Jack were really helpful when my son was young. These games help make the abstract idea of waiting your turn more concrete. They’re very simple and you don’t need any language to participate. Your child will learn that we have to make space for others, and sometimes we have to wait patiently for our turn. Both skills are necessary to grasp when in school and beyond.
These games are fast-paced and when the characters “pop” the payoff is huge! My kids loved playing these kinds of games. They’re fun for all kids—even those who don’t like to engage in lengthy activities.
Social Emotional Learning
Children need social-emotional skills to successfully navigate life. It’s empowering to understand our own emotions and attempt to understand the experiences of others. Trying to connect with others in this way opens up our world. Children will learn about these things in the classroom, so it’s nice to reaffirm the lessons at home too. Playing these kinds of games and offering these tools gives them the opportunity to learn how to express themselves and be better understood by others.
When our children were younger I often used flash cards to describe my feelings to them. I’m guilty of using far too much language (like in these long blog posts!) and it can be confusing for children who don’t process language quickly. The flash cards were a great tool for all of us. It can be fun to make a silly face on a Mr. Potato Head toy and relate it to an emotional outburst in your home (positive or negative). These things might seem silly, but they really do help solidify concepts that can be difficult to learn.
Learn more about how you can use these games by clicking the images below.
Even though it’s a stereotype of autism, I think most people enjoy routine and structure to some degree. Knowing what to expect out of a situation is calming. The first week back to school is rarely anything but chaotic. Amidst all the change, it’s nice to feel in control of something. When you’ve practiced things at home, you can feel less frustration when it comes time to do the task at school. Putting indoor shoes on and wearing them around the house can help with sensory changes. Playing with new lunch containers gives more confidence when snack time comes. Some of them can be tricky to open! So it’s good to practice ahead of time.
If it’s available to you at home, try getting your child to hang their jacket up on lower hooks. If you don’t have any but you’d like to give your child the chance to practice, you could install some damage-free and removable wall hooks. Install them at a kid-friendly height and empower your child to keep trying. This may sound silly, but we are all taught these skills whether we remember it or not! It took my son ages to grasp the correct motor skills to be able to reliably hang his coat. If you’re reinforcing these skills at home teachers will be grateful, and everyone benefits!
For Older Kids
If you’ve got a child that’s used to going back to school but is struggling with the social aspects, this book may help. It’s an interactive journal that promotes boundaries, sensitivity, personal space, consent, and self-advocacy. I know not every kid has the ability to use a tool like this but I wanted to share in case it’s helpful to you.
If your child is not able to read and journal themselves, it may be helpful for you to gain perspective from this author. You can take what you’ve learned and share it with your child in a way that makes the most sense to them.
If your child is getting older, periods may be the next developmental hurdle you’re facing. KT by Knix is designed for teens. They are an amazing option for sensory-sensitive periods. Tampons and pads can be a huge challenge for those autistic individuals who menstruate. These underwear have pads built right in, so there is no need to change anything other than pulling the underwear on and off as you normally would. You can save $10 off your purchase of $100 or more with code THEAUTISMEDIT_KNIXLOVE.
Another reality of autism is that sometimes using public washrooms can be a huge ordeal. If your child holds or leaks, these underwear are a savior. Keep in mind that the design was created for a girl’s body, and the smallest available size is kids’ pant size 7—so they may not suit your needs. The quality is excellent and they can withstand many washes.
There are so many factors to consider when heading back to school. The first few weeks can be really tough, and it’s important to try and stay patient as your child navigates these changes. Of course, that’s easier said than done! I hope you find some time to take care of yourself. I’m cheering you on from here, and sending you so much strength to get through September 🤍
If you have any tips to make the transition smoother, please comment below so we can all benefit from your experience!