Congratulations! Your child is about to start school. It is exciting, but it can also be scary. Sending any child to school for the first time is hard for any parent, sending a child with special needs to school, especially one that has a difficult time communicating can be even scarier. 

Fortunately, there are things that you can do to make the transition easier for you and your child. Here are my best 10 tips.

Tip 1–Prepare Your Child Ahead of Time 

Many children with Autism fear change.  The good news is that once school starts, the consistent structure and schedule will be wonderful for you child. However, while it is new, the change in routine can be challenging for many kids to cope with. This is compounded by the fact that children who are starting school for the first time might not fully understand what is going on and what to expect.

There are some things you can do to help ease your child’s anxiety by preparing them ahead of time.

  • For a few weeks before school expose them to books and videos about school. Talk to them frequently about starting school using language they can understand. Even if it seems like your child may not fully understand the books or videos, show them to them anyway. At the very least, they will create visual associations that could ease their comfort in a new environment.
  • Use social stories to help prepare your child to understand that he will start school. Social stories are short stories that are designed to teach a child how to act in a social situation. They were researched and developed by Dr. Carol Gray in 1993 and since then, dozens of studies have demonstrated their effectiveness. I use them all the time in my private practice working with families like yours.
  • Countdown the days until school with your child. Cross off the days until school on a calendar to provide a visual countdown for your child. This will help make sure they know exactly what to expect . 

Tip 2–Know the Goals on Your Child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

I am going to be real for a minute. You may not like what I have to say but it is true. Your child’s teacher is being handed a stack of IEPs for each and every one of their students. They are long, lengthy legal documents that generate verbose and confusing text that all sounds the same. It is not likely many teachers will read it and actually use it to develop your child’s education program. The more you as a parent know about your child’s IEP, the better they will do in school.

Know what your child’s goals are. Ask the teacher what they are working on and make sure the lessons they choose, address the goals you agreed upon at your child’s IEP meeting. If you haven’t already, make sure you participate in the creation of those goals! Know what support services your child is supposed to receive. Make sure if your child is supposed to be pulled out of the classroom for services such as speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, that those sessions are actually happening as opposed to the therapists being used as an extra set of hands to pass out snack.

Most often, teachers like myself who work with kids with Autism do it because they are really passionate about helping kids but unfortunately this isn’t always true. You are your child’s best advocate and it is ultimately up to you to make sure their needs are being met. Knowing your child’s IEP will help you to have informed conversations with your child’s teachers and ensure they are aware of his goals.

Tip 3— Take a Tour of The School

Ideally, the first time a child visits their new school and classroom shouldn’t be the first day of school. While every school has different policies, most schools are very accommodating and will let you and your child visit. Sometimes they will even let your child spend part of a day in his future classroom. 

Many times, children with Autism will attend contained classrooms that have children in a fairly broad age range. This means that when they enter school, they will likely see some familiar faces. It will also give your child a chance to get comfortable with their new teacher.

Some people think that children with Autism are not interested in people and as a result, they skip this step. This is simply not true. The fact that children with Autism struggle with knowing how to act in social situations does not mean they don’t desire to create bonds with others. Whether or not they are able to express it, they know the difference between friends and strangers and receive the same comfort we do by seeing a familiar face.

Tip 4— Create a Visual Schedule for Your Child

Children with Autism are visual learners. As a result, schedules are very helpful in knowing what to expect. Most children have difficulty with transitions because they do not know what will happen before or after an activity. Creating a schedule will show them what happens before and after school. This will make them far more comfortable about going to school and will ease their anxiety about coming home. 

Ideally, put something your child enjoys on the schedule right after school such as eating a favorite snack, going to a fun place or time to play with their favorite toy. This will motivate them and give them something fun to think about.

Tip 5— Make Sure Your Teacher is Aware of Your Child’s Sensory Needs and Send in Sensory Toys

Sensory behaviors are part of Autism. These behaviors, technically called stereotypy, can include hand flapping, mouthing objects, spinning car wheels, lining things up, watching parts of a video repetitively, fixating on one toy, holding things in their hands, rubbing their feet on people and countless other behaviors.  Make your teacher aware of what your child’s sensory behaviors are and send in any toys that will help them be more comfortable and focus in school.

For example, if your child uses a chew tube at home because they mouth objects, send it in! It is important your child has it in school. If your child will drink from one specific cup, send it in! If using sensory balls helps your child focus, pack them! Send whatever you think will help your child be more comfortable and successful. Many parents choose not to send things in because they are afraid teachers will judge them or limit access to them. But, most teachers are grateful to have something that works for your child.

Tip 6–Make Sure Teachers and Support Staff Know about Special Accommodations like an Alternative Augmentative Communication (AAC) System.

Many children with Autism will have received some type of service such as early intervention, speech or applied behavior analysis before starting school. This almost always includes the development of an AAC system. An AAC system is a way for a child to communicate while they are learning to talk. This could include a picture board, a formal program such as Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) or a voice output system such as a Dynabox or iPad app like Poloquo2go. Make sure to send this in and make sure that you child’s teacher is trained on how to use it.

Insist your child be allowed to have access to his communication system all of the time. This is your child’s way of communicating. Taking it away, even putting it out of your child’s reach for a few moments to make more  room on the table for and art project or snack is equivalent to putting a hand over your child’s mouth so they cannot speak. It is never ok.

Tip 7— Get The Same Toys the School Has Ahead of Time

Do your very best to find out what toys, puzzles and books will be in your child’s classroom. Get the same ones and teach him how to play with them. Most behavior problems occur in school when children do not know how to manage or occupy their downtime. 

There is something to be said about kids liking toys that are new and different. That is true, but kids with Autism usually lack some play skills which means without being taught how to play with new toys, they may not be able to. This will result in them spending more time engaging in sensory behaviors or having tantrums.  It is better to make sure they at least know what to do with the toys that will be in their classroom.

Tip 8— Take Advantage of Community Programs to Practice School Skills 

If your child is new to school they may be new to group activities like circle time and art projects. Do everything you can to make sure your child has lots of practice before school starts and school is not your child’s first exposure. They will likely need a lot of practice before they know how to sit and participate. Almost every public library in the nation has a circle time. Call your town’s library and the library in the towns surrounding you and bring your child to as many of them as possible. This is one of the best ways to prepare your child for school activities.  

Tip 9— Send in Your Child’s Reinforcers

Most children with Autism will receive some form of applied behavior analysis (ABA) in the classroom. ABA works by giving your child reinforcers or rewards when they engage in a desired behavior. It helps to show them what a correct response is and know what is expected of them. 

Many times children with Autism are picky and only like a few things. I don’t need to tell you that! How many times have you bought new foods or toys that your child has rejected? It may be really hard for your teacher to find something your child really enjoys. The more motivating a reinforcer is, the more a child will learn, this is always true. One of the best ways you can help your child learn more effectively at school is to send in what reinforcers have worked at home.

Tip 10— Ensure Your Child Has Identification

Every parent’s  biggest fear is that their child does not talk and that there is a possibility that they will wander out of a classroom. I would love to tell you that could never happen but we are all too keenly aware from watching the news that it does. 

If your child wanders, make sure his teachers know and fight to get him a 1:1 aid. If your child cannot communicate his name, your name and your phone number, make sure they are always wearing an identification bracelet. It should identify that they have Autism, their name, your name and your phone number. 

Some parents fear this will stigmatize their child or that they will have a difficult time keeping them on. These two things may be true but it will help keep them safe and that is the most important thing.

It is my hope and prayer these ten tips ease your fears about sending your child to school.  School will be a fun and safe place for your child. He will learn, grow and explore at a whole new level and you will watch him blossom before your eyes.

As a therapist, I can only imagine what it is like to send a child that can’t speak for themselves to school. But, what I can promise you, is if you follow these ten tips, you can be their voice.

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