Helping Children on the Autism Spectrum to Transition to a New School

Question

"We are going to be moving to a nearby town in a few weeks, and starting the first week in April, my son (with high functioning autism) will be attending a new school. The timing is not very good for this move as we had hoped to wait until he finished grade school at the current location. In any event, how can we make this transition without having major meltdowns and/or behavioral problems?"

Answer

The transition to a new school can include changing from elementary school to middle school - or middle school to high school. It can also include moving to a new school district. In any event, your high-functioning autistic (HFA) youngster will rely on you to guide him toward making predictable sense of it all.

Changing schools, relocating to a new home, and having a new baby sister are all exciting times for the HFA child – but they are also stressful, overwhelming times. Even the word “change” may be disturbing for some kids on the autism spectrum, because it may be associated with “loss of security” and “unpleasant circumstances.” 
 

Below are 15 important tips to ease your son’s transition to a new school. (Note: It may not be possible to implement all of these suggestions; some schools are more accommodating than others.)

1. A school-team meeting should take place to (a) plan for your youngster's transition, (b) ensure consistency, and (c) document the steps agreed upon. If the school does not offer such a meeting, contact your youngster's school to request that the principal schedule one.

2. Acknowledge that changing schools can be a scary or frustrating time because of so much being unknown. Moving up in grades is also a measure of growth and maturity. Reinforce with your youngster that he is growing and learning, and that he certainly wouldn't want to stay in his present grade level, even if it meant remaining in the same building.

3. As the ‘first day of school’ grows near, be prepared for your child’s anxiousness to grow. Be ready to
offer reassurances and answer questions. Transitioning to a new school will be taxing and stressful for your youngster, but with preparations in place, it should be much more manageable.

4. HFA and Asperger's students usually don’t do well without structure. So ask school officials if there are any responsibilities that can be assigned to your child during unstructured activity times. Some schools offer structured indoor activities as alternatives to recess and other unstructured times.

5. Be sure that your youngster has his own way of visually counting down the days until the transition by marking off a calendar or some other timekeeping device. 
 

6. Give the transition as much attention and importance as it carries for your child, but balance it with an air of fun and adventure. Remember, your youngster will reflect back to you what you project upon him. If your anxiety shines through, it will directly affect the intensity of his anxiety.

7. Have your youngster meet next year's primary or homeroom teacher before the end of his current school year. In addition, arrange for that teacher to observe your youngster in his current class to glean firsthand information about his learning style.

8. If your youngster has anxiety about being identified as an easy target for bullies, find out about the new school's bullying policy and obtain it in writing to review and share with your youngster. Follow up with the administration if you have any questions or concerns about incident investigation or accountability. Your youngster should know exactly who he can tell about any incidents in which he has felt bullied – verbally or physically.

9. Obtain a map of the new building’s layout for your youngster to keep. Specify all the areas, rooms, and exits he may use (e.g., location of his locker). This will help him to prepare and plan some subtle adaptations or accommodations.

10. Partner with your youngster in information-gathering prior to the transition, or at the least, provide daily updates to quell his fears and butterflies.

11. Pledge to support your youngster in demystifying as many of the unknowns as possible.
 

12. Schedule at least one visit to the new building and provide your youngster with a camera or camcorder to record the visit, allowing him to be in charge of directing the “movie” for the day. In this way, your youngster can relieve some of his anxiety by reviewing the images as often as he wishes at home where he feels safe and comfortable.

13. See if the school can provide a peer-mentor or some other student who can show your youngster around in a discreet, non-stigmatizing way with the potential for friendship.

14. Understand that many educators may not know much about autism spectrum disorders if they haven't had a child with HFA previously. It will be your job to help educate them.

15. Ask your child’s new teacher if she can provide your child with a clear, up-to-date photograph of herself. In addition, attached to the photograph, the teacher may add any personal data she feels comfortable sharing. Share this information and the photo with your child. Some examples of personal data include:
  • Birthday (month and day only)
  • Car make, model, color and year
  • Favorite color
  • Favorite music
  • Favorite places to vacation
  • Favorite sports
  • Full name, with an indication of how the teacher is to be addressed (e.g., Mr., Mrs., Miss)
  • Hobbies
  • Loved ones and their names
  • Pets and their names

With a little assistance and reassurance from parents, the child on the spectrum can be expected to succeed – and enjoy – his new school environment.

More resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:
 

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