Going Back to School: Setting Your Autistic Child Up for Success

Image of a young brown girl sittingin a classroom setting background. She is sitting at a desk smiling and holding a notebook of lined paper with text "Back 2 School."

As summer winds down, preparing for back-to-school can feel like an overwhelming task. Your child may be preparing for a new classroom, teacher, schedule, or even an entirely new school. You may be wondering how you can support your child during this transition to set them up for success. Below are a few tips to help you and your child during this time.

Adjust your schedule. In the weeks leading up to the first day back to school, try to mimic the daily school routine. You may need to make changes to your child’s sleep schedule to help them transition to an earlier bedtime and wake time. Think about starting a morning routine that may include getting out of bed, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and packing a backpack. Practice this every day even if you are just staying home. If you know details about your child’s school schedule, you may start to eat during their lunch/snack times or include structured routines such as completing an activity while sitting at the table.

Use supports. These can include social stories, visual schedules, or countdown calendars. Social stories can include descriptions of your child’s school schedule, classroom, and teacher. These can be particularly helpful to prepare children for new situations. Visual schedules can provide consistency, increase predictability, and help your child anticipate the next activity. Visual schedules are especially helpful to practice new routines. If a routine changes unexpectedly, you can prepare your child by showing them the change in the visual schedule. Countdown calendars may be helpful for older children to visualize the passage of time. Remember that you know your child best! You may have ideas of supports that may be most helpful for your child to transition back to school or attend a new school.

It’s okay to ask questions! If your child is starting at a new school, you may be wondering about a lot of things. You can ask school staff to set up a visit. Schools and other settings are not required to allow you to visit, but it’s always worth asking. During the visit, ask if your child can meet their new teacher, practice a drop-off routine, and see their new classroom. If you can’t visit, you can still drive by the building, look for pictures, and have a conversation with school personnel to get the information you need for yourself and your child. You may ask how your child will get to school, about their daily routine and necessary supplies, as well as how school staff will communicate with you.

Create an “About Me” page. You are encouraged to communicate with school staff about your child. Creating an “about me” information page can share what the school staff should know when working with your child. This page may include your child’s strengths and interests, how they communicate, what strategies are helpful at home, and things that may be difficult for them. Opening communication can help you (and the school!) feel more prepared and ready to support your child during their transition back to school.

Remember to take care of yourself during this transition as well! Include self-care into your daily routine. Remember that self-care does not have to be a full day of rest and relaxation. It can be a brief and meaningful action. You may do this by practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, and progressive relaxation exercises. You can also do some physical activity, reach out to others for support or distraction, or delay a non-urgent item on your “to-do” list. Although this time may be difficult for your child and your family, you can help support their transition back to school by also taking care of yourself and showing yourself some grace.

This article is a collaborative effort of Madeline Auge, Ph.D., Psychology Research Fellow and Alexa Dixon, Ph.D., Research Fellow, Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD).