Returning to school can evoke a mixture of emotions for students and their parents. For some families the end of the summer and return to regular routines can leave parents and children pining for a longer summer vacation. Others are excited by the prospect of a new school year and eager to meet their teachers, buy school supplies, and reconnect with classmates. For students with ASD and their families the return to school can present a unique set of challenges.
Why is it that transitioning back to school is so difficult for children and teens with ASD? ASD manifests with difficulties in three primary areas of functioning; social communication, social interactions, and restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. Transitions into a new school year place demands on all of these areas- often requiring supports to be implemented by parents and educators. Individuals with ASD also demonstrate challenges with areas of executive functioning. Research suggests that difficulties in at least one domain of executive functioning has been found in 90% of students with ASD. In particular, struggles with flexibility are commonly observed in individuals with ASD, and this contributes to struggles pertaining to transitions and adapting to new routines. As such, supports pertaining to executive functioning difficulties, particularly inflexibility, are indicated to facilitate a successful transition into the school year.
Parents play a critical role in helping children and adolescents prepare for the new school year and navigate the many challenges that are associated with new teachers, classrooms, expectations, and academic and social demands. At each stage of development students with ASD face distinct challenges, and it is important that family members are aware of the strategies to prevent roadblocks that can stand in the way of a successful school year. While not an exhaustive list, below are some tips and tricks for supporting a successful transition into the new school year:
Elementary School Support Strategies:
- Before the first day of school meet your child’s new teacher and, whenever possible, any support staff. Also try to meet the bus driver and do a “dry run”.
- Create a social story including a picture of your child’s new teacher. Read the story repeatedly to familiarize your child with their new teacher.
- Establish and practice a “getting ready for school routine” multiple times before the first day. Visual supports – including checklists and visual schedules – can be helpful in supporting the establishment of this routine.
- Create scripts for common problems experienced throughout a typical school day. Examples include how to tell an adult you need to go to the bathroom and what to do if you are feeling sick.
- Write a 1-2 page document for your child’s new teacher with information about sensory sensitivities, likes and interests, and allergies. You can ask your child for their input about what they want their teacher know about them.
Middle School Support Strategies:
- For some families, middle school can mean a new, often larger, school environment. Prepare your child by visiting the new building, obtaining maps and learning where classes are located. Identify the support staff to minimize struggles in the beginning of the school year.
- Middle school is the first time many students will be expected to change classes, have a different teacher for each subject, and store their materials in a locker. This can place greater organizational demands on students and require additional skills and support. Direct instruction of organization strategies, including written schedules and to-do lists can be helpful. Additionally, there are any many apps that can support these skills and are often well received by students.
- Assignments often become more complex in middle school. Breaking down assignments into smaller chunks can help students with the organizational demands, support the ability to self-monitor, and create a sense of accomplishment!
- Middle school can be challenging for everyone, neurotypical students, students with ASD, and parents alike! One of the reasons middle school is notoriously hard is because of the complex social relationships that develop during this time. For students with ASD, the social hierarchies, emergence of romantic relationships, and onset of puberty can create an environment that feels confusing for students on the spectrum. Moreover, many students with ASD lack peer relationships that can help in understanding their social environment. Parents should be aware of these challenges and provide opportunities for discussion in a supportive manner.
High School Support Strategies:
- Understand each student’s unique executive functioning profile, and provide corresponding supports. It is crucial to remember that individuals with ASD who exhibit intellectual strengths often experience executive functioning difficulties and provision of supports around development of compensatory strategies is crucial.
- Provide direct, concrete instruction to learn organizational strategies and establish routines that foster success. Direct instruction does not mean completing the task for your child. Providing “just enough” support is key. Remember, adolescents often respond better to instruction from an “outside” expert.
- Preparation is the best tool to combat the challenges often associated with a new school building. Visiting the school multiple times before the first day, reviewing maps, identifying entrances and other important areas in the building can set your student up for a successful transition.