Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum Avoid the "Back To School Jitters"

"I have a little boy with high functioning autism that is feeling a lot of dread now that he has returned to school. I would welcome some ideas on how to make this transition as smooth and stress free as possible."

Preparing kids with Aspergers (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) for the new school year requires a little more than making sure uniforms fit and backpacks are filled with all the necessary school supplies. Most U.S. schools will open their doors in August. Before then, moms and dads need to ensure all their documents are in order, transportation is prepared, and good communication is established with their youngster's school.

Here are 25 ways in which you can help your youngster prepare for the new school year:

1. Ask the school whether you will be able to walk your child into the classroom and hand him off to the teacher.  Find out how long you will be able to stay.  If you suspect that your son or daughter might have a hard time saying goodbye, by all means speak with the teacher now and make a plan for how to handle the first day. 

2. Ask the teacher to provide you with the daily class routine so that you can review this schedule with your child at home.

3. Be sure all children lay out clothes the night before, that lunches are made, and that everyone gets enough sleep and a healthy breakfast.  Plan to arrive at school early so you have time for meaningful goodbyes.  And don’t forget that “first day of school” photo before you leave home!

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

4. Bring a camera and ask to take photos of the new classroom, teacher and surroundings.

5. Create a “Transition Book” for your child. This is a book about your youngster’s new teacher and class. You can use the photos you took during your meeting at the school. Look at the book regularly to help your child become familiar with the new environment.

6. Encourage your child’s questions by asking what she thinks school will be like.  Emphasize the things you think she’ll enjoy, but be sure not to minimize her fears. Children can be stricken by worries that parents might find silly (e.g., finding the bathroom at school). Normalize any fears and reassure her that she will have fun, that the school can reach you if necessary, and that your love is always with her even when you aren’t.

7. Facilitate bonding with the other children. Children are always nervous about their new teacher, but if they know any of the other children, they’ll feel more at ease.  

8. Facilitate your child’s bonding with the teacher.  All children need to feel connected to their teacher to feel comfortable in the classroom.   Until they do, they are not ready to learn.  Experienced educators know this, and “collect” their students emotionally at the start of the school year. 

9. Find out what other children are in your child’s class and arrange a play date so she’ll feel more connected if she hasn’t seen these children all summer.

10. Get your child back on an early to bed schedule well before school starts.  Most children begin staying up late in the summer months.  But children need 9 ½ to 11 hours of sleep a night, depending on their age. Getting them back on schedule so they’re sound asleep by 9pm to be up at 7am for school takes a couple of weeks of gradually moving the bedtime earlier. Imposing an early bedtime cold turkey the night before school starts results in a youngster who simply isn’t ready for an earlier bedtime, having slept in that morning and with the night-before-school jitters.  In that situation, you can expect everyone’s anxiety to escalate.  So keep an eye on the calendar and start moving bedtime a bit earlier every night by having children read in bed for an hour before lights out, which is also good for their reading skills.

11. Get yourself to bed early the night before school so you can get up early enough to deal calmly with any last minute crises. 

12. If a younger sibling will be at home with you, be sure your child knows how boring it will be at home and how jealous you and the younger sibling are that you don’t get to go to school like a big kid.  Explain that every day after school you will have special time with your big girl to hear all about her day and have a snack together.

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

13. If you’re new in town, make a special effort to meet other children in the neighborhood.  Often schools are willing to introduce new families to each other, allowing children to connect with other new students in the weeks before school starts. 

14. If your youngster gets teary when you say goodbye, reassure her that she will be fine and that you can’t wait to see her at the end of the day.  Use the goodbye routine you’ve practiced, and then hand her off to her teacher.  Don’t leave her adrift without a new attachment person, but once you’ve put her in good hands, don’t worry. 

15. Let your child choose his own school supplies, whether from around your house or from the store, and ready them in his backpack or bag. 

16. Make sure you’re a few minutes early to pick your child up that first week of school.  Not seeing you immediately will exacerbate any anxieties he has and may panic him altogether.  If your child cries when you pick him up, don’t worry.  You’re seeing the stress of his having to keep it together all day and be a big boy.

17. Moms and dads need to review special education documents such as individualized education plans, or IEPs, and meet with principals and, if possible, educators to ensure everyone is on the same page as far as the students' needs are concerned -- from modified teaching lessons to transportation.  Moms and dads should go through their youngster's IEPs before the school year starts and make a list of anything ambiguous, or something you don't quite understand.  After completing your homework, you may realize that your child's IEP is lacking or needs adjustment. You may want to consult with an independent professional (e.g., psychologist or behaviorist) and/or convene with the IEP team to discuss your youngsters changing needs. Moms and dads can call an IEP meeting at any time, and the district is required to hold the meeting at a mutually convenient date/time within 30 calendar days (beginning with the first day of school and excluding any breaks that are two weeks or more). As always, be sure to make your request in writing.

18. Once school has started, check-in with your child’s new teacher on a regular basis to see if the transition has been successful.

19. Research shows that children forget a lot during the summer.  If your child has been reading through the summer months, congratulations!  If not, this is the time to start.  Visit the library and let him pick some books he’ll enjoy.  Introduce the idea that for the rest of the summer everyone in the family will read for an hour every day.

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

20. Share your own stories about things you loved about school.

21. Start conversations about the next grade at school or about beginning school.  One good way to do this is to select books relating to that grade.  Your librarian can be helpful. Get your children excited by talking about what they can expect, including snack, playground, reading, computers, singing and art.  If you know other kids who will be in his class or in the school, be sure to mention that he will see or play with them. 

22. Take advantage of any orientation opportunities.  Many schools let new students, especially in the younger grades, come to school for an orientation session before school begins.  If the school doesn’t have such a program, ask if you and your child can come by to meet the new teacher for a few minutes a day or so before school starts.  Educators are busy preparing their rooms and materials at that time, but any experienced teacher is happy to take a few minutes to meet a new student and make him feel comfortable, since she knows that helps her students settle into the school year.

23. The day before school starts, talk about exactly what will happen the next day to give your child a comfortable mental movie. Be alert for signs that he is worried, and reflect that most children are a little nervous before the first day of school, but that he will feel right at home in his new classroom soon. 

24. There are many books and computer applications for kids that tell social stories. Provide your child with social stories that model appropriate behavior at school and with other kids.

25. Try to arrange for your child to travel to school that first morning with a youngster he or she knows. Even if they aren’t in the same classroom, it will ease last minute jitters.

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