Helping Children With Autism Get Ready To Start School

This brilliant guest post is from Marita who blogs at Stuff With Thing and has two daughters who have been diagnosed on the Autism spectrum. Marita is an inspirational mum, who’s positive attitude to life and love of her kids impresses me every time I read her blog. If you haven’t read her blog before head over and check it out.

Both my girls are on the Autism spectrum. This year my 7yo (Aspergers) is in Grade One at our local mainstream primary school and our 5yo (High-Functioning Autism) attends PrePrep in a mainstream primary school in the next suburb. Next year my 7yo will be moving up to Grade Two and my 5yo will start Prep at the same mainstream school as her sister.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is characterised by impairment in three main areas – communication, social interaction and imaginative thought. This makes school very hard because communication and social interaction are a huge part of school and anyone who has spent time in a school classroom or outside in the playground knows that children’s imaginations lead much of their play and interactions.

From our experiences in the school system over the last couple of years here are some tips I have found very useful in preparing our girls both to start school and to return to school after the summer holidays.

  • Slow and steady – start slowly introducing all new school items, uniform, bag, lunch containers etc as early as possible. We have 5yo’s new school bag sitting in my bedroom now; every so often she walks into my room to look at it and that is enough for her at this point in time. Change is hard for children on the autism spectrum, the first day of school is going to be a huge change so try to introduce as many things as you can before that day so that the child has a chance to become familiar and comfortable with them.

Helping Children With Autism

  • Practice, practice, practice – we practice eating lunch out of our school lunch boxes, walking to school, wearing our uniforms. Everything that we can practice to help increase familiarity, we do. It also really helps to highlight any areas that may cause issues and gives you a chance to work on them in the safety of the familiar home environment. For us the biggest factor was sensory issues related to wearing the school uniform from 9am to 3.30pm and we were able to find ways to reduce those sensory issues.

    In the weeks leading up to my eldest daughter starting school we practices using her lunchbox and eating to the same timetable that she would at school. You can see some tips on how to do this on my post Getting Ready for School.

  • Label everything – my 7yo has no ability at all to keep track of her belongings. Even her most precious toy that she cannot sleep without will go missing and she has no idea where she put it. Toys, books, clothing, bags, shoes all get labelled.
  • Bag tags – incredibly helpful to promoting independence is a simple laminated bag tag that has a picture list of what the child needs to pack in their bag each day. While an adult is available at home to help pack the bag for school, your child may often be left to their own devices in the classroom to pack their belongings away. Practice doing this at home can also be beneficial; spatial awareness and understanding of how to fit things in the bag can be challenging to some children.
  • Build familiarity – visit the school, if you can access the grounds during the holidays then do so, have a picnic in the school playground, or walk/drive past the school on your way to other places. It does not have to be a big deal, nor even mentioned; just go past and let your child get used to seeing the school as a place that is part of their day, not something new or different. To this end we put together a little picture book for my 5yo. I took photos around the school and put them inside a little photo album, and now she can look through it whenever she is so inclined. You can download a MS Word version of the Starting School Picture book for your own use here.

Helping Children With Autism

  • Social stories & schedules – can be used to great effect to help prepare your child for starting school, knowing what is in store and what is expected of them. We found our 5yo’s biggest concern about starting school was that she thought she would have to stay there forever. Using a combination of social stories and picture schedules, I was able to reassure her that she would come home at the end of the school day. Read more about social stories.
  • Relax and stay calm – easier said than done and honestly I do not always succeed at this. Both my girls’ anxiety levels start to climb in the days before school starts. It helps to know that this is coming and to remember that once the routine of school becomes an established part of life the anxiety levels will (hopefully) wind down again. I prepare for this by eliminating all but the most necessary of extra-curricular activities in the lead-up to and during first term. Make sure home is a quiet safe place for the children to unwind. Provide familiar snacks and activities that are calming. Use the time your child is at school to centre yourself so that when they return you are ready to focus on their needs.
  • Communication – this is not so much for your child as for yourself. It can be a very anxious time sending a child off to start school, especially if that child has special needs. I find it eases my anxiety to keep clear lines of communication open with my daughter’s teachers and school principal. For me, what works best is written notes and emails as I can refer back to them at a later date if necessary and it is much harder to misinterpret or forget something that is in writing.

Good luck and I hope the start of the school year goes as smoothly as possible for you and your family.