Helping a Child on the Autism Spectrum Transition to a New School

By Elizabeth Verdick and Elizabeth Reeve, M.D., authors of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)

Elizabeth Verdick © by Free Spirit Publishing

Summer is over—as a parent, you can breathe a sigh of relief. No more hearing “I’m bored!” every day.

But if you’re a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, that sigh of relief is often accompanied by a feeling of “What will go wrong?” Even when you’re proud and excited, you also feel worried, protective, and sad.

Recently, Tonya* (names have been changed throughout to protect privacy), a mother of a son with autism, said to Dr. Elizabeth Reeve:

Elizabeth Reeve, M.D.

“Just when I finally can look forward to some time to myself when all my kids are in school, I also have to brace myself for the sadness my autistic son may face if no one wants to have lunch with him.” Tonya’s son is entering middle school for the first time, a transition that’s difficult for any child but especially one with autism or Asperger’s. Elizabeth Verdick, also the mother of a new middle schooler on the spectrum, relates to Tonya’s need to brace herself for the what-ifs: What if my son struggles in his classes, doesn’t fit in, falls behind, gets in trouble, or can’t find his way? The list of worries is long. The trick is not to let it overshadow the milestone taking place.

Dr. Reeve shared a success story with Tonya, telling her about a sixth-grade patient named Billy. Billy is primarily nonverbal unless spoken to, but like any child on the spectrum, he has unique personality traits and skills. Billy looks like any other sixth grader until the classroom gets loud. Then he puts his head down on his desk and loudly hums to block out noise. Billy sometimes gets agitated in the hallways, too. Because these behaviors can make Billy seem “different,” his parents worried that he’d get teased or bullied. They anticipated that his first few days at his new school would be especially stressful and confusing. To help ease the transition, his parents spoke with the teachers before school started, letting them know about Billy’s challenges and his exceptional spelling skills. On the first day of school, in each of Billy’s classes, every teacher found a way to let Billy answer a spelling question. He stood out in a positive way. The other kids got to know Billy, and he soon became a vital and accepted part of his school community.

Yes, the back-to-school transition has its ups and downs. But you’re the parent of a child with special needs, which makes you a special kind of parent. Advocating for your child can make a big difference in your child’s experiences at school and within the community.

Start Strong:

  • Sidebar, photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons-Hitane_Elementary_SchoolReview your child’s IEP (Individual Education Plan): Know what strategies are in place for the current school year. Who is on your child’s educational team? Will your child have an aide or helper? Is there a designated break room where your child can go to calm down?
  • Have your child’s schedule handy: Together, go over the daily schedule with your child. Kids on the spectrum have a need to know “what comes next” to feel calmer at school. Print out the schedule and each teacher’s name for you and your child. Be sure you have all the teachers’ names, phone numbers, and email addresses so you can stay in touch. You are the link between your child and his or her teachers. Reach out!
  • Practice the “wheres” and “whens”: Does your child feel comfortable navigating the school? Make a point of walking the route from class to class, to the cafeteria, to the gym, to the nurse’s office, and to the bus waiting area, especially if your child is mainstreamed and will not have an aide. Be sure your child knows his or her bus number and bus stop.
  • Anticipate stressors: The school day is filled with noise and commotion. Sit down with your child and go over possible problems: What do you do if you forget your lunch? Where do you go if you don’t feel well? What happens if you forget your homework? Who can you always go to for help? Where do you go if you need a break? It’s also helpful for your child to have tools for self-calming. Teach your child how to take deep breaths, count slowly up to ten and down from ten, gently squeeze and release fists, imagine a peaceful scene, or repeat a positive message. Most importantly, be sure your child knows to say to a teacher or other adults at school: “I need a break.”
  • Initiate connections with school personnel: Your child will interact with a variety of adults in the school community, including the media specialist, the Autism Speaks School Tool Kitnurse, bus drivers, gym teachers, lunch servers, and recess monitors. Help these adults get to know your child and his or her special needs. Emphasize what makes your child unique and, if possible, offer tips on how to better understand your child. This may pave the way for more positive interactions.
  • Do role plays with your child: Practice all sorts of skills—asking a question, waiting in line, starting conversations with peers, using a locker combination. One mother told Dr. Reeve that role-playing with her daughter revealed some surprising information. During the role plays, the daughter pretended to be a variety of adults at school (bus driver, teacher, lunch aide), and each time, the girl portrayed the adult saying: “Don’t you know what you’re supposed to be doing?” Mom realized that her daughter worried about appearing lost or confused in different situations at school. That valuable knowledge helped the family address such concerns.
  • Ask about sensitivity training within the classroom: Your child’s classmates and peers may not know much about autism or Asperger’s. Can you create a learning opportunity, either by talking to the students or asking the teacher to do so? If you don’t wish to share your child’s diagnosis, perhaps the teacher can present a general lesson on being aware of people’s differences and the need for respect and acceptance. It may be possible to set up your child with a “buddy”—a student who can help your child during recess, on the bus, or at lunch.
  • Medical FileKeep your child’s medical files up to date: Does your child have other conditions (seizures, asthma, digestive issues)? Update your child’s forms for the health office, provide the school with medications and instructions, and sign all necessary paperwork. Take the lead on this instead of waiting for the school to contact you.
  • Prepare yourself for intense emotions: Early in the school year, many children on the spectrum are even more prone to outbursts, tears, resistance, and meltdowns. Remember that you are a “special parent,” and without your guidance, your child’s life would be very different. It’s important to take care of yourself so you can be there for your child. Take deep breaths, find time to exercise and meditate, eat healthy foods, and stay connected to friends. You’ll be a stronger, calmer parent now and throughout the school year.
  • Be proactive: Communicate with your child’s teachers and the case manager on his or her educational team. Find out what’s going right for your child! Is he or she making friends? Doing well in math? Asking for help? Celebrate these successes and brainstorm ways to build on them. If problems or concerns crop up, ask yourself, “What would I like to see done differently for my child?” Think of specific steps that can be put into place. Empowering your child’s team to help solve problems is more effective than demanding a change.
  • Give it time: It often takes longer for children on the spectrum to transition into the school year (we’re talking weeks and months, not days). Set realistic expectations. At home, focus on the positive as often as you can: What made you laugh at school? Tell me something you liked learning about. When did you feel proud today? Set up some events so your child has something to look forward to: inviting a friend over, going to a favorite place in the middle of the week, or having a special meal.

This time of year is emotional for all of us as parents, whether we’re sending a child off to elementary, middle, or high school—or to college. The best we can do is to take it day by day. Elizabeth Verdick’s twelve-year-old son put it this way: “I’m going to miss summer. Good times, good times. But I guess I can tolerate going back to school. Maybe. Sort of. We’ll see. . . .”

Good luck, everyone!

Elizabeth Verdick has been writing books since 1997, the year her daughter was born. Her two children are the inspiration for nearly everything she writes. Previously she shared her personal story, Telling My Son He Has Autism, on this blog. These days she writes books for babies, toddlers, teens, and every age in between. She especially loves creating new board book series—the first books in the Happy Healthy Baby® series are now available. The Toddler Tools® series helps young children and their parents cope with those tough times and transitions that happen every day (like naptime and bedtime). The The Best Behavior® series helps toddlers reach new milestones and improve their day-to-day behavior. SurvivalGuideKidswithASDs2 Elizabeth also enjoys getting the chance to look at the funny side of life in the Laugh and Learn® series, which helps kids ages 8 to 13 get a handle on the social-emotional skills they’re developing throughout the elementary and middle school years.

Elizabeth Reeve, M.D., is a child psychiatrist in Minnesota, and her clinical work focuses primarily on children and adults with developmental disabilities. In addition to her research and patient care, Elizabeth is involved in teaching, speaks in the community to educate others in the field of developmental disabilities, and helps young adults with ASD transition into college and the work force.

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