Students on the Autism Spectrum: Coping with the First Year of Public School

"My son with autism (high functioning) will be attending his first year of public school next year, and I am making early preparations now so he can be as successful as possible given the challenges.  He's already having a lot of anxiety even though it's about 8 months away. He's been home-schooled and this will be quite a change for him. I've heard that this transition is particularly stressful for children with this condition. How can I help him cope effectively with this big change coming up in his life?"

Your child with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) will be starting his first year in the public school system — and as a parent, you may be very nervous.

Some AS and HFA children will start the year off easily, breezing into the classroom with a quick goodbye — but after a few days — cling as you try to leave.

Others will enter the building only under protest from day one. Then there are those who rush off to school with great enthusiasm, but have a meltdown the instant you pick them up.

Others may get stomachaches, or have difficulty falling asleep. Some may even experience going to school as a rejection, particularly if a younger sibling stays home with mom. These are the challenging, but frequent reactions to the start of school.

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism
First grade is an important year for most kids for many reasons. It is a big change from half-day kindergarten to all-day first grade. For some, it may be scary riding the school bus home with the older kids (not to mention the extended hours away from mom and dad).

To help parents ease their “special needs” children into the school experience, here are some practical tips for getting off to a good start. Tailor these techniques to suit you and your youngster:

1. Acknowledge your own separation anxiety. Moms and dads worry when their children start public school for the first time. They worry if the educators will really know how to care for their “special needs” youngster. They feel a sense of loss because this is usually the first time their youngster is away from home this long. They may also feel loss because they work full time and can’t be there at the school to help their youngster adjust to the new environment. They may feel guilty if they have to leave a crying youngster at school and go off to work. So, as a parent, try too can find ways to work things through by talking with a friend, spouse, school guidance counselor, or pastor if needed.

2. Adjust your child’s lunch schedule to his school’s timing. Contact the school to find out when your youngster will be eating lunch. A youngster who is used to eating at 11 a.m. can get hungry if their scheduled lunchtime isn’t until noon.

3. Ask the school for help if your youngster has trouble adjusting. If separation remains stressful after a few weeks, set up a meeting with your youngster’s educator and the school’s guidance counselor to speak about the best ways everyone can help you adjust. If possible, meet without your youngster – or you may want to schedule a separate meeting with your youngster present so everyone can make a plan together.

4. Ask the educator for help. If your youngster won’t let you go, turn to the educator for assistance. She probably has a lot of experience with this. You might say, “Let’s go say hello to Miss Johnson together. She will take good care of you.”

5. Ask your youngster a few compelling questions. Specific questions will help your youngster imagine what school will be like and help you talk about the fun stuff and the hard stuff. You could ask, “Is there anything that worries you about starting school?” … “What are you really looking forward to?” … “What do you think the hardest part of school is going to be?” …and so on.

6. Attend school events. Go to “Back-to-School night’ and PTA meetings. These events give you the opportunity to see the world your youngster lives in every day – and meet the adults in charge (as well as other moms and dads).

7. Create a home environment that allows after-school downtime and sharing. Whether you pick your child up at school or she arrives home on a bus, a youngster coming home from a full-day of school will most likely be very hungry and needing to relax. Don’t try to ‘talk’ about your child’s day until you have her basic needs met (e.g., snacks and rest). Allow your child some time to play outside or in her room before talking about her day. But then, whether during dinner or at bedtime, allow her to unload. Right before bedtime may be the best time to talk. Kids seem to be an open book at that time of night.

8. Describe what will happen on the first day. Keep in mind that an AS or HFA youngster starting school for the first time may have a hard time imagining what it will be like. Talking about the basic sequence of the day will help your youngster make a mental movie of what to expect. AS and HFA children form pictures in their minds, and reviewing the process in detail will make things more familiar and less scary on the first day of school.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

9. Don’t be surprised if your youngster is upset at the end of the day. AS and HFA children often save up their hard feelings for their mom or dad, because it feels safer to let these feelings out at home than at school. It’s actually a good thing when children save up their hard feelings for their care-takers. You can even expect a surge in sibling rivalry or fighting with YOU at home. Children don’t usually come home and say, “Things got rough on the playground today,” but they often act-out their feelings at home.

10. Don’t talk about how much you will miss your youngster. Don’t let your own worries get in the way. Walk your youngster into school (or put him on the school bus), and then talk to other moms and dads if you need support. Your youngster has enough to worry about on the first day without soothing your worries.

11. First grade moms and dads can best help their “special needs” kids weather what can be a bumpy year by focusing on making sure the youngster has a solid, familiar routine that allows her to get enough sleep, play out of doors, bathe, keep her room tidy, and practice any skills or hobbies in which she has taken an interest.  The need for a solid night’s rest at this age can’t be over-stated.  Kids of this age need approximately 10 hours of sleep.  Every good day starts with a good night of sleep (a sound piece of advice, not just for first-graders, but their exhausted mom and dad as well).

12. Help your youngster allay feelings of frustration at not being able to do things exactly right the first time by reminding her of all the things she is able to do this year that she could not do the year before (e.g., ride a bike, help with the dishes, read all by herself, etc.). 

13. Focus on fun. If you escort your youngster to school, check out the playground before you go in. Meet the educator together and take a look around the new classroom for things you know your child enjoys (e.g., art supplies, a fish tank, the reading corner, etc.).

14. Get to know the educator. The faster you can establish a positive relationship with your youngster’s educator, the faster your youngster will adjust to the new surroundings and become independent. The safer your youngster feels, the more energy he can put into learning. So from a parent’s perspective, you want to support your youngster forming a strong bond with his educator(s).

15. Get up early. When you do, you can have a relaxed breakfast, leave enough time to deal with upsets, and still get to school on time.

16. Give your child control over what he can control. Offering simple choices may help calm nerves and get your child excited. For instance, if you pick out a new backpack or lunchbox, let your youngster choose the color. If you shop for school supplies, let your youngster find the items in the store and check them off on your list. The day before school starts, let your youngster choose clothes for the first day (but keep veto power).

17. If your youngster gets upset, acknowledge the feeling and ask him for suggestions. You can say, “I know you’re upset. I’m sure other children are too. Let’s think about what will help you feel better.” Suggest reading a book together or starting an activity.

18. If your youngster misses you a lot, choose a special object together that he can bring to school. Sometimes it helps with the transition if children can bring a memento from home (e.g., a parent’s picture, a note, a scarf, or other special object to remind them that their mom and dad are thinking of them). Encourage your youngster to show the object to the educator (inquire to see if there is a policy about how your youngster can use the object during the school day).

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

19. If your youngster says, “I don’t want to go,” remind her about the fun things. Think of something you know your youngster loves to do, or likes about school. See if you can get started on this activity together. Remind your youngster of all the new (or old) friends in her class, and go over and say hello together. If you don’t take your youngster to school, suggest she do some of these activities when she gets there, and send a note to the educator about your concerns.

20. If your youngster says, “I hate school,” ask him what’s wrong about it. Children will usually be able to tell you exactly what’s wrong. It’s common for kids to worry about playing on the playground with bigger peers, or about when dad will return for pick up. Help your youngster develop a solution to the problem. You can ask, “What makes the playground feel frightening?” Talk to the educator (with your youngster) about it. Ask your youngster if he wants to tell the educator himself, or would like you to do it.

21. If your youngster takes the school bus, encourage him to make “bus friends.” Get to know other moms and dads at the bus stop to help you feel connected to school, and to help your youngster find friends. Create your own special goodbye ritual to send your youngster off with a good feeling.

22. Learn about the drop-off policy. Find out about the policy for walking kids into the classroom and how long you can stay. If you anticipate that your youngster will need extra time to adjust, talk to the educator before school starts.

23. Pretend to be the educator of your child’s first grade class. Do some role-plays. This may help remove some of the fear of what to expect.

24. Look around the classroom. If you drop your youngster off in the classroom, look around to see what is changing every day. What’s new on the walls? Which books are in the book corner? Noticing the details may help you reconnect with your youngster later and talk about them together.

25. Make a quick exit. Take your cue from the educator and from your youngster, but when it’s time to go – LEAVE! A swift exit may be more useful to your youngster than a drawn-out goodbye. You can often call school later to check on how your son or daughter is doing (and you’ll probably find out that he or she is doing fine).

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

26. Meet other children in the class. Find out if there will be a class gathering before the first day. It can be helpful to see familiar faces when your child walks into a new classroom. Even if your youngster already has friends at school, schedule some play dates with children your youngster may not have seen over the summer.

27. Plan ahead how you will say goodbye. Think about what your youngster needs in a goodbye. What will be most helpful (e.g., a quick goodbye, five minutes of cuddle time, etc.).

28. Practice going to school. Make a dry run to help your youngster get familiar with the route and the routine. Point out interesting sights or places familiar to your youngster. Notice the swings, slides, or other fun things that your think your youngster will like, and try them out together.

29. Practice patience. The first week of “full-day school’ may be a big shock for the entire family, but be patient. The tiredness and grumpiness may linger beyond that first week. It usually takes much longer (usually around Christmas break) for AS and HFA children to get accustomed to their schedule. And it may take the entire family a good month to get into the groove of the new school year.

30. Practice the school routine prior to school starting. To help your youngster adjust, plan to shift her schedule from summer to school mode before school starts. Routine, especially at home, is so important. Start the “early-to-bed routine” several days before school starts in the summer to get your child used to it. In this way, it won’t be a shock.

31. Read books about starting school. Books will get children talking and feeling comfortable. Some good ones include:
  • “Annabelle Swift, Kindergartner” by Amy Schwartz
  • “First Day Jitters” by Julie Dannenberg
  • “Get Ready for Second Grade, Amber Brown” by Paula Danzinger
  • “I Am Absolutely Too Small for School” by Lauren Youngster
  • “The Berenstain Bears Go to School” by Stan and Jan Berenstain

32. Reduce morning stress on school days. Reducing stress in the morning can help make the whole day turn out better. Be sure to lay out school clothes at night and give your youngster plenty of time to eat a healthy breakfast. Helping her with her morning routines can prevent stress too. Give your child a pictorial checklist. You can download great pictures to match her list of things to do (down to the exact backpack she will be heading off to school with).

33. Refresh and encourage your youngster while he is at school. Even though you can’t attend school alongside your youngster, don’t underestimate the value of a note or other reminder in his lunchbox. Missing mom and dad can be a real concern. Family photos can be a reminder for the non-readers that their parents will be waiting for them at the end of the day. Whether it’s a photo taped in a lunchbox or a small photo on a yarn necklace, it can be a real comfort.

34. Remember what school was like for you. What you think school will be like for your youngster is likely based on what school was like for you. Thus, it’s important to recognize that your youngster may have a very different experience than you did. Separate your own feelings about school from your childhood so your son or daughter can have a fresh start. You may have had a horrible experience, which can make you over-worry about your child. You may have had a wonderful experience, which could make you insensitive to places where your child may be having a hard time. This is why thinking about and separating-out your own experience is so important.

35. Talk about school at home. Specific questions might get your child talking. For example, "What did you do on the playground today?” … “What was the best part of the story the teacher read today?” … “What’s it like to be line-leader?” … and so on. You don’t need to be there to learn about what your youngster does at school. Discuss what the educator writes in the newsletter. When your youngster brings home work, comment on it with specifics.

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance 

36. Understand your role in the separation process. Your separation issues could be feeding your youngster’s anxiety. If you are having trouble separating, your youngster will always pick this up. One way to help you both feel better is by developing a trusting relationship with the educator.

37. When school starts, let your youngster wear a special locket with a picture of someone special in it. It is comforting to know you have someone you love close to you. If your youngster brings her lunch to school, put a red paper heart in it.

38.  When you take your youngster into his classroom, ask to see some work. If you sense your youngster feels uneasy at drop off, focus on the positive. Ask him to show you an art project or other activity he’s doing at school.

39. One way to help make this “new challenge” go a little smoother is to buy supplies ahead of time. Here is a checklist of a few common things that first graders use: 
  • 1 box of tissues
  • 1 composition notebook
  • 1 package dry erase markers (low odor)
  • 1 package large Crayola™ water colored markers (8 in a box)
  • 1 plastic folder with pockets
  • 12 large glue sticks
  • 2 boxes crayons (24 or less)
  • 2 erasers (plain)
  • Fiskars™ metal scissors (they also have left handed scissors)
  • plain pencils (40 sharpened)
  • school box (plastic, not to exceed 3" in height)

40. If your efforts (as outlined above) don’t seem to be working – be flexible. Adjust routines if needed. Is your child getting enough sleep, food, recreation, etc.? Is there anything else going on at school (e.g., bullying)? By maintaining your patience, you will help ease the transition to full-day school for your youngster, and perhaps just as important, yourself.

Little things can make a big difference in how AS and HFA kids will adjust to change. First grade is the beginning of many important changes in your child’s life. Taking the time to ensure an easy transition for all involved is a smart investment.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said... I homeschool. Society is far too cruel and nowhere near ready for our advanced children!
•    Anonymous said... I put my son in catholic school. We have had no issues. They are patient and kind and the other children and very understanding. Summer camp with public school kids...didn't go as well. I would also put my son in a Friends school if we could swing it. No public school for us!
•    Anonymous said... my boy was homeschooled till 3rd it's very hard due to kids being mean to him ...he just needs a lot of help & the schools special ed plan is very good .mostly it's my boy's reaction to his peers that bring on more stress .He does have a few friends that get him so that is helpful...
•    Anonymous said... my son, 12, just began middle school, and is in a small group of kids, and was excited to get his first locker! He's in a good supportive school.
•    Anonymous said... We began homeschooling this year (third grade) due to issues with the school system.

Post your comment below…

Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...