By Dr. David Blake
The return to school at the end of summer is a hectic time for most families, but for families with a child with autism, this transition can be quite challenging.
While each child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is unique, many have a strong preference for sameness.
Any change in routine, including a return to school, tends to increase anxiety and can result in problematic behavior.
Parents of children with ASDs, however, can take a number of steps to try to smooth the back-to-school transition.
Specifically, they should work to prepare their child, their child’s teacher and themselves for the new school year.
Visits to school prior to the beginning of classes are a good way to prepare a child for a return to school.
Such visits allow the child to reacquaint himself with the building, to explore his new classroom and to meet his teacher.
If a teacher already knows the daily schedule for her class, a child can walk through the schedule during the visit to the school.
This gives the child a better sense of what to expect when school begins.
For younger children, parents can use the schedule to create a homemade story book about the school day and then read the book a few times each day before school begins.
Gradual reintroduction of school morning routines and sleep schedules well before the beginning of school can be beneficial.
Parents may also want to try to align lunch and snacks with the times they will occur at school.
By helping the body physically adjust to the school routine, parents may also help emotions adjust.
In addition to preparing their child, parents should also prepare teachers. A one-sheet “Introduction to My Child” can help familiarize teachers with students.
On the front of the sheet, place a picture of your child and a few sentences about his strengths and his challenges (keep it brief!).
On the back of the page, list any special allowances (“accommodations”) the school has agreed to provide to the student to make sure that the teacher is aware of these.
Finally, parents should prepare themselves for the new school year by remembering to stay positive.
For children with prior struggles at school, worries about “another” school year can quickly sap a parent’s strength and resolve.
Optimism provides hope and allows parents to see their child’s strengths more clearly, including newly emerging skills that might otherwise be overlooked by a negative perspective.
A new school year poses challenges for a child with an ASD but also marks an opportunity for further building of social, language and academic skills.
Early preparation of the child by an encouraging, optimistic parent can set the child up for a positive start to the new year.
Dr. David Blake is a develop-mental-behavioral pediatrician and a native of Lexington. He recently returned to his hometown to join Commonwealth Pediatrics, where he provides both general and developmental-behavioral pediatric care for children.