Back to School for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Be patient and realistic. It could get overwhelming for the parents and the child

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Many children feel excited about going back to school — but for some children on the autism spectrum, the thought of returning to school feels overwhelming. 

“It’s reasonable to conclude that a significant proportion of children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders have struggled immensely over the past year and a half,” said Andy Lopez-Williams, Ph.D., founder and clinical director with ADHD & Autism Psychological Services and Advocacy/CNY Quest in Syracuse and Utica. “These struggles aren’t limited to academics as many children with autism missed out on therapies such as occupational, speech/language, physical, and psychological therapies.”

That is why he believes that schools, families, and providers should work together to form the best plan for addressing each child’s needs. For example, Lopez-Williams wants parents to share with the school as much information as they can about how each child is doing academically and developmentally. Otherwise, children can fall behind even more.

Lopez-Williams also thinks the school and parents should remain in communication to help prepare children for returning to school for both the sake of safety but also for helping the children feel less apprehensive about going back to school.

Doug McCaffer, special education teacher at Liverpool Central School District, said it is important for the children to know that their parents have spoken with the school.

“You can tell your child, ‘I talked with your teacher and we’re on the same page,’” he said. “It eases all of their concerns and fears.”

In addition to their children’s individualized education program, parents should ask about the daily schedule, any modifications and accommodations the child will need and when any therapy will happen. Discussing all of these with children can make their return to school smoother.

“When they come to school, they’ll be prepared for what to expect, even little things like snack time and lunch,” McCaffer said. “If it’s a new teacher, you want to talk about the child’s strengths and weaknesses. They may be able to work in a reward system to motivate the child. You could talk about what works when the child is resistant to learning something.”

He also recommends setting up a means of communication such as texts, emails, a time to call or journal. This kind of rapport can help educators and parents work out what best aids the child.

Meeting in person with the children along can also help.

“Prior to school starting, perhaps it could be arranged to tour the school and meet the teachers,” said Jean Leiker director of the local chapter of The Central New York Chapter of the Autism Society of America in Dewitt. “Get a schedule, understanding that things can change.”

Parents can use the schedule to create an illustrated social story to help the children better visualize how their day will go.

Photographs may cause disappointment in children who are very literal, such as a meltdown for being assigned a blue desk instead of the green one in the photo. Using cartoon illustrations may be better for conveying the concept of a random desk and not one specific desk.

“A lot of families get lax on our summer routines,” Leiker said.

Since many children on the autism spectrum thrive with routine, it is helpful to get back on a school schedule at least two weeks before school starts again. Leiker also thinks it is a good idea to establish rapport with the educators and school counselors before school starts.

“Make sure the flow of communication is easy,” Leiker said. “That helps us help our kids to know what to expect. Families should share what’s going on at home and tips and strategies to make everyone have the best day possible.”

The change of going back to school should include positive changes that the child can control. William E. Sullivan, Ph.D., licensed psychologist, and assistant professor of the department of pediatrics at Golisano Center for Special Needs at SUNY Upstate Medical University, suggested incorporating fun in back-to-school shopping.

“Allow your child to pick out their own school supplies,” he said. “Perhaps incorporate sensory-friendly items that they can bring with them to ease the transition. Make sure new clothes and shoes are comfortable and give your child time to get used to them.”

Breaking out the new supplies, pants and shoes on the first day back to school may contribute to the child’s stress if these items don’t “feel right.”

Sullivan encourages providing teachers with any information that will help them make the child feel comfortable in class. Though teachers are experts at educating, “you, mom and dad, are the experts on your own child,” Sullivan said. “It is important that you share your knowledge with your child’s school team. Make sure that all of your child’s resources and supports are in place prior to their arrival. For example, you want to ensure that your child’s individualized education plan has been discussed and agreed upon before the school year begins.”