Back to School: The Unique Challenges Facing the Parents of a Child with Autism

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The transition from summer back to school can be tough for everyone, especially for families with children with autism. However, with proper preparation, you can help make your child’s back-to-school experience a positive one!

Like many other situations facing a child with autism, the best chance of success comes from rehearsal, practice, and exposure. Begin with rehearsal. Start early! Work on waking your child up at the time they will need to be up for school. Depending on the child’s ability level, have them get themselves dressed, washed, and ready for the day including anything that you will expect them to do when school starts. Focus on details: What alarm will wake your child up? What will they have for breakfast that first week? What are they going to wear? Finally, if time permits, take your child to school several times, using the route you will take. If your child takes the bus, drive the route the bus will take.

Practice makes perfect, as the old adage says. Practice ALSO makes for a significantly more comfortable back-to-school experience. Run through the expected morning routine as many times as possible before school starts. It may be helpful to maintain the same schedule on weekends. Don’t forget to provide positive reinforcement when they are doing the right thing!

Work on exposing your child to their new environment as much as possible. Take any opportunity to visit your child’s school or meet the teacher or support staff in advance. If the school is locked, walk around and see what is visible through the fence. Finally, express excitement: “See that playground? Won’t it be fun to play on that?”

Establish expectations early and hold to those routines. Do they wake themselves up? Do they dress or bathe themselves? What responsibilities do they have in regards to breakfast or lunch? How do they get to school or the bus stop? Especially if this is your child’s first year of school, work on creating separate “work” and “play” times. For example, 30 minutes of sitting earns them 10 minutes of play. This will help them adjust when they are asked to do this at school.

Before school starts, or within the first few weeks, work on creating a “Personal Portfolio” for (or with) your child. This is essentially a resume for your child, conveying as much information as possible to any teachers or support staff who will be working with them. Include photos, artwork (depending on your child’s age), likes and dislikes, challenges and strengths, and lists of favorite things as ideal reinforcers.

It is likely that your child will work with many different professionals, including teachers, psychologists, aides, occupational therapists, speech therapists, in-home therapists, and doctors. Convey information about progress, challenges to each of these people as often as possible. If availability allows, have as many members your child’s support team as possible attend IEP meetings. Confidentiality laws prohibit outside professionals from talking to school personnel about your child, so it is important that you be the go-between, and you may need to provide written consent.

Ideally, your child’s teacher will reach out to you on a regular basis with updates, however, this doesn’t always happen. Be proactive -- set up a schedule to touch base with your child’s teacher regarding their progress. Consider developing a communication journal if your child’s teacher does not initiate it. You can put it in your child’s backpack, and ask the teacher or aide to write in it daily. You can also write back to communicate your concerns, questions and appreciation.

With a little advance preparation and practice, you can make your child’s back-to-school experience a positive one for him or her, for yourself, and for your child’s support team!

Cristina Franco, M.A., BCBA
Behavior Supervisor, Bakersfield, CA
August 20, 2019