From Beaches to Backpacks: Navigating the New School Year with a Special Needs Child
Leaving the endless summer days behind and transitioning into a new year at school can be tough for any kid, but back-to-school time can be especially stressful for individuals with autism.
Children and teens diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) find changes in routine challenging. The beginning of the school year means new buses, classmates, teachers, and even new schools, all of which can make children anxious and affect their ability to learn.
Individuals with ASD can also have a host of other symptomologies that make adjusting to the new school year difficult. Sensory dysfunction, or hyper and hypo-sensitivities to sensory stimuli, means that the loud noises, bright lights, and echoing hallways in school may be a source of overwhelming distraction.
Deficits in social communication can also be problematic for individuals on the spectrum. Understanding appropriate classroom behavior and navigating peer relations are just two of the social challenges that kids with ASD face. It can be hard for individuals with special needs to recognize bullying and pick up on expressions and the nuances of conversation, such as humor and sarcasm.
Executive dysfunction can pose major academic challenges for those on the spectrum. According to Autism Speaks, “executive functioning refers to a person's ability to process information. It includes skills such as organizing, planning, paying attention and inhibiting inappropriate responses.” Therefore, paying attention in the classroom, managing homework, studying for tests and completing school projects can all be a struggle.
Difficulty with honing fine and gross motor skills and motor planning are also common in individuals with ASD. These can impact one’s ability to do basic physical tasks such as writing or running, which can in turn create challenges in the classroom, playground and gym.
Lastly, individuals with autism can experience cognitive processing delays which can affect reading and speech comprehension. As kids get older, they can struggle with learning as their class lessons increasingly rely on verbal discussion rather than visual or hands-on activities.
According to school psychologist and New York Delegate to the National Association of School Psychologists, Dr. Peter Faustino, one of the biggest obstacles families face on the first day of school is trusting that their children will be safe, which results in parents putting off “nervous energy.” He urges parents to remain positive and calm because kids are often “very attuned to parents’ behavior and will take their lead from what you say and do.”
Faustino says the second obstacle parents face is the “sharing of information.” He urges parents to send a note or email to their child’s teacher describing any needs he or she has. “Don’t be afraid to share what your goals and wishes are for the school year. Teachers welcome this information. And it just might help alleviate your concerns on that first day,” says Faustino.
It’s important to dedicate the same effort into communicating with your child as you do with his or her teacher. Social stories are descriptions of social events that aim to provide guidance and direction in new or complex situations. They use written words and visuals which are helpful because individuals with autism can have a difficult time understanding verbal explanations. Reading personalized social stories about the new school year can help children understand their new routine, how to interact with peers and what is expected of them in the classroom.
When it comes to adjusting to a new routine, practice makes perfect. It is a good idea to gradually introduce your child to their school schedule and environment ahead of time so the transition isn’t too abrupt.
Before school starts, try to visit your child’s classroom and any other areas they will frequent, such as the bathroom, gym, cafeteria and playground. If your child is older and will be changing classrooms throughout the day, try following their schedule and walking the route to each class. Additionally, if your child will have a locker, practice opening and closing it with the combination. Point out safe places where your child can play, and show them areas that should be avoided, such as parking lots. If possible, introduce the student to his or her teacher and support staff so that they feel comfortable in the classroom on their first day.
If a child is riding the bus, practice walking to, and standing at the bus stop so your child knows where they will be picked up and dropped off. Tell your child how to behave on the bus and who will be on it, and possibly arrange to meet the bus driver ahead of time if necessary.
An essential part of a successful first day is getting your child’s sleep schedule back on track. Summertime usually entails staying up late and sleeping in even later, which means adjusting to waking up early can be tough. "About a week or so before school begins, start re-establishing bed-time routines," says mother and educator Heather Luke. Establishing a consistent bedtime routine leading up to the new school year will ensure that your child wakes up refreshed and on-time every morning for school.
Running through after-school routines is also important. Children can practice cleaning out their backpacks and lunch boxes, sitting at the table to do their work and eating a snack. It’s also encouraged that children take some quiet time to unwind after school as it can decrease the chance of a meltdown after a long day. Individuals with autism may also have trouble adjusting to unfamiliar objects, so exposing your child to his or her new school clothes, backpack, lunchbox or any other supplies ahead of time will ensure that they’ll already be used to the items when school begins.
Having your child go on playdates or visit parks leading up the first day of school can prepare them to be around other children, and even help them become comfortable interacting with their peers. Decreasing social anxiety and encouraging children to bond with others will make school a much more fun experience.
Making a visual schedule can also be beneficial for individuals with autism. “My son, Andrew, loves to look at a calendar and marks his days off after they happen,” says mother Angela Conrad. “This helps him to prepare for the next day. We talk about what his days entails and what big events we have that month. If he can visually see what day he starts pre-school then he will be better prepared for his big first day.”
Families can also better prepare for the first day by laying out their child’s clothing and packing their lunch the night before. This way, parents can spend the morning providing support for their child if he or she is nervous before going to school. Parents can pack sensory toys, such as fidgets and chewy necklaces, and tools such as noise-cancelling headphones in their child’s backpack as they may be helpful for those who experience sensory sensitivities.
It’s crucial for parents to make sure all services, such as Individualized Education Programs, are in place, and all paperwork is organized. By taking advice from other parents and preparing for the first day of school in advance, families can ensure that their child has the best chance at achieving success.
Heather Luke advises that parents treat the new academic school year as a fresh start, regardless of negative experiences they’ve had in the past. She says to "assume good intentions" and not let lingering feelings get the best of you since your child’s IEP team will probably have new members this year. "That lesson is one I had to learn first before I could have an IEP team that would work well," says Luke. “Starting each year fresh with the school team is "one of the gifts we can give our kids."