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Back to School Tips for Students with Autism and Parents

Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network
Date Published: 
August 20, 2018

It's that back-to-school time of year, when stores are overflowing with #2 pencils and spiral notebooks, backpacks and sneakers, parents and glum children. If your child has autism, however, preparing him or her for a new school year likely involves things you can't find in aisle 12.

Many people with autism struggle with change, and returning to school every fall marks one of the biggest annual transitions for children and teenagers. They must adjust to a new routine, teachers, classmates, bus, or school, any of which can send anxiety into overdrive.

How can families ease the back-to-school transition for their students with autism – and themselves? Professionals and parents shared their tips for making this time of year less stressful for everyone.

Make a Photo Book or Video about the New School Year

Help prepare your student by making a photo book or video of the new classroom, teachers, and school, recommends Amy Moore Gaffney, a speech-language pathologist and educational consultant at the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University.

If possible, teachers or parents should take photos or videos in May or June, before school ends, she said. For example, a rising fourth grader could be filmed meeting the fourth grade teachers, touring the fourth grade wing at school, and walking the route from that hallway to the cafeteria. Or an adult could take photos of those places and people, which the student and parent could assemble into a scrapbook during the summer. "It can be as fancy as creating a book with a Word document or PowerPoint, or as simple as gluing on photos with handwritten captions for each page," she said. Students can review the book or video all summer.

illustration of school supplies and backpacks for autism back to school articleAnother option is to make an appointment to visit the school shortly before doors open in August or September, and take photos or video then, she said. The family may know the student's class assignment by that time. "Try to have a face-to-face meeting with the teacher before school starts," she said. "A parent could ask, 'Can I come in for 15 minutes and see the classroom? I'd love for John to meet you.'"

Ms. Gaffney recommends photos or videos because many students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) learn best that way. In fact, studies show that autism interventions that use visual information, such as picture schedules and video modeling, are effective, according to the National Standards Project.1

Families may think they've prepared their children for a new school year by talking about it, she said, "but if they don't see it, it doesn't have the same impact."

"When you tell a student he will have a new class and a new teacher, we don't know what pictures are in his head about what that will look like," she explained. A child with ASD may not understand that the phrase, your teacher, will refer to a new person each year. Similarly, she said, some students assume they will have the same classmates and sit in the same room in September. Imagine their anxiety when they find many new faces awaiting them.

Prepare a One-Page Profile of Your Student

Help the school staff get to know your child. Prepare a one-page profile of your student to introduce him to school employees, bus drivers, and after-school program leaders, recommends Heather Luke, a parent educator at The Parents' Place of Maryland, which helps families find educational and health care services for children with disabilities. Describe the student's strengths and interests, and include a photo. If appropriate, involve your student, so he or she can learn how to advocate, she said. An advance visit to the school might be a perfect time to hand out the profile.

Practice Opening a Combination Lock to Prepare for Using a Locker

Photo of shoes and school supplies by PixabayMoving from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school, may require even more preparation during the summer. Students who will be using a locker for the first time may practice opening and closing a combination lock at home, Ms. Gaffney said.

"Another good visual is to take a picture of what a locker should look like inside. Hang up a backpack and put folders where they should go," she said. The photo can be reviewed during the summer and posted inside the student's locker once school starts. Students may also benefit from having a list inside their lockers showing the materials needed for each class.

Changing Classes for the First Time? Walk the Route Before School Starts

Learning to navigate through crowded, loud hallways to get to each class on time can pose a challenge for anyone moving to middle or high school. This can be especially daunting for students with autism, who may have sensory sensitivities or a poor sense of time.

Before school starts, request a tour of the school and time to practice walking between classrooms, Ms. Gaffney said. Ask for a map, so your student may chart his routes and learn the school layout. Using a timer, see how long it takes him or her to move from class to class. "If it takes them 15 minutes to do it when they're by themselves in the hallways, then you know there's a problem," she said. Those students will need more time for practice. Use a cell phone to film the routes, for the student to review later.

While Visiting a New School, Don't Focus on Classrooms Only

Besides learning the routes to classrooms, students should visit the library, gym, nurse's office, restrooms, cafeteria, or any area that may be important to them.

"I had a student with autism who was having a really rough first semester of seventh grade in a new school," Ms. Gaffney recalled. The boy finally told her he was upset by the library, which had been a place of refuge for him in his previous school. "He said, 'The library is in the wrong place. It's not upstairs. In my old school, the library was upstairs.' He felt so out of place because it wasn’t in the right spot," she said.

Request a Meeting with Your Student's Case Manager

photo of teacher in classroom by iStockEven upperclassmen in high school can benefit from arriving at school before it starts, advises parent Michelle Meitz, whose family participated in the Simons Simplex Collection autism research project. She recommends a meeting with whomever will oversee the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP) or accommodations, often called a case manager or worker. "Even though Kyle [her son] continues to have a great support network in school, he starts out each new year with a new caseworker and has to build a relationship almost from scratch each time," she explained by email.

It can take time for both sides to get to know each other. "So meeting the caseworker prior to the first day has usually been helpful to us. We would suggest a meeting with the whole team (if possible) prior to the start of school. Sometimes at the high school level, teachers will be in their classrooms setting up on locker move-in day and might be available to meet with students briefly. Call ahead and ask your school or caseworker if this would be possible," she said. In some school districts, a caseworker, often a special education teacher, is called an IEP team leader, IEP chair, or a case manager.

Re-set Bedtime and Morning Routines at Least a Week before School Opens

illustration of alarm clock by PixabayDuring the summer, your child may have gotten used to going to bed later, waking up later, and having a leisurely breakfast in front of the television. Switching gears to a school schedule could be difficult without some time to adjust. "About a week or so before school begins, start re-establishing bed-time routines," said parent educator Heather Luke, who has a son on the autism spectrum.

Besides going to bed earlier, and waking up earlier, students can do other tasks at home to prepare for the first day of school, Ms. Gaffney said. They can pack their supplies in a backpack, and leave it by the front door, a visual reminder that school will starting soon, she said.

Make Sure Services are in Place

Does your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP) require that he get a bus to school, or have an aide to help during class? If you have not been notified about the child's bus pickup time, call the school or the school district's transportation department to find out, said Mallory Finn, an attorney at Project HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy and Law), which provides advocacy and legal help for low-income children with disabilities who receive services at Kennedy Krieger Institute. You also may contact the IEP team chair to ask if an aide has been hired and trained, she said.

Look for Ways to Learn More about Special Education and Advocacy

Illustration of a file briefcase by PixabayLook for opportunities to learn about the IEP process and your child's special education rights, Ms. Finn said. "Parents don't have to be experts, but it's good to understand their rights and generally what IEP teams are required to do."

School systems, community service agencies, or state parent information centers may offer free workshops, publications, newsletters, online information, and seminars. Call or visit the website of the Parent Training and Information Center in your state or U.S. territory. These centers, which are funded through U.S. special education law, provide free help and information to families of children with disabilities, explained Ms. Luke, who works for Maryland's parent training center. You can find the one serving your area by visiting

Organize Your Special Education Documents

Put your special education documents together in a folder, cabinet or drawer – anyplace you can find them quickly, Ms. Finn said. If a disagreement arises with the school, you should keep records of your contacts with school staff, such as emails and written logs of calls and meetings. Bring a list of your concerns to an IEP meeting, so you do not forget to mention something, she said. "You can take a friend or family member with you to an IEP meeting if you feel overwhelmed and need someone to take notes or act as a second set of ears," she said.

Start the New Year without Baggage from the Past

Regardless of what happened last year, approach the new school year as a fresh start, recommends Ms. Luke. "Assume good intentions," she said. "This is a new school year and your child’s IEP team will more than likely have new members," she said. If you had a bad experience with a school in the past, do not carry those emotions and feelings into a new academic year, she advised. "That lesson is one I had to learn first before I could have an IEP team that would work well." Years ago, her son with ASD was injured when school employees in Virginia tried to lock him into a seclusion room. Starting each year fresh with the school team is "one of the gifts we can give our kids."

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Photo credits: 1, 2 and 4: iStock; 3, 5, 6: Pixabay

  1. National Autism Center. Findings and conclusions: National standards project, phase 2. Randolph, MA: National Autism Center; 2015. Accessed June 15 2016.