Preparing your autistic child for the first day of school

While starting school can be scary for most children, those with autism can find the change of routine and busy social life more difficult. So how can you make starting school for your autistic child easier?

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Nearly one child in every 100 may have an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), which is a wide term for those with either Autism or Asperger Syndrome, according to the NHS. Sensory difficulties, routine issues and social anxieties are just some of the difficulties autistic children face, which is why they can find it hard to adapt to new situations like going to school. 

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What’s different about an autistic child starting school?

Children with an ASD don’t develop the social and language skills that other children do so can sometimes find it hard to understand or communicate. Many children also develop a strict routine, such as getting up at a certain time, so when the routine is disturbed they may become distressed.

Louise Green, from West Sussex, is mum to Phoebe, 7, Nathan, 5, and Harry, 4, and all three of her children have an ASD.

“My boys have a routine when it comes to going to school – they will wake up at a specific time, have their breakfast at a specific time and go to school at a specific time. Nathan is going to primary school this September and Harry is starting school for the first time,” says Louise.

“During school holidays their routine is turned up on its head so it can take them a few days to settle back into the school routine.”

How can you prepare your autistic child for school?

The holidays are coming to an end and you’ve only just settled your child into a holiday routine. So what do you do now? Louise suggests that two weeks before school starts, you sit down with your child on a regular basis and try to show them, using books or pictures, what is going to happen come September.

“It can be really difficult, especially with two pre-verbal children (meaning they have no spoken language skills), so I use pictures to explain. My boys use the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), where they exchange a picture for the item, to tell me what they want or need. All of my children received transition booklets from their schools, so I make sure I leave them in a place they can find them all summer, but sit down and go through the booklets with each child about two weeks before school starts,” explains Louise.

“I spotted my youngest boy Harry pick one up during the holidays and have a look at the pictures, but there is no point going through it with them too early because it won’t mean anything to them. Two weeks before the start of term is probably best,” says Louise.

Ask your local support group or contact the National Autism Society (NAS) for details on how you can get transition booklets. Alternatively, you can buy picture books and read them to your child at a certain time a few days before the transition – we particularly like Going to School by Usborne First Experiences, available from Amazon

However your autistic child might need something more specific, so ask the schoolteacher, or Special Education Needs Coordinator (most mainstream schools have one) about what resources they can provide.

Also, keep an eye out for reminders that can help your child know the difference. “Nathan knows it is time to go back to school when he sees his school jumper, because he has learnt to associate the two together,” says Louise.

“I plan to get his school jumper towards the end of the last week before school starts, but I have to be careful that I do it after he has dressed for the day so as not to confuse him,” adds Louise.

How can you prepare your child’s school?

When you have decided on a school for your autistic child, whether a specialist school or a mainstream school, go in and meet the teachers. Although the teachers will receive medical notes about each child, it is best for both the teacher and your child to meet in person.

“Prior to the start of term, the teachers at my children’s specialist school arrange transition visits for every child and their family. The teachers need to be able to understand each individual’s needs before term starts as every child with an ASD is different, but they can also provide plenty of advice for mums and dads too,” says Louise.

On your school visit, take along a camera and snap away at all the new classrooms, canteen, sports halls and toilets your child may use. With these images you can create your own picture book, to help your child familiarise himself with the environment.

How can you prepare yourself?

“The best thing to do is to find out what works for you and not be worried about what everyone else is doing,” says Louise.

Planning is key when it comes to helping your child have an easy transition into school life, but be prepared to face any situations that may arise, even if your child’s been fine in the past. “Sometimes your child may just not feel well, but stay calm and work things through together,” Louise advises.

“Also, if you have people that can offer you support, take them up on it because they will genuinely want to help you. Talking to people who are going through similar experiences to you always helps you feel less pressured into doing the ‘right’ thing, because there is no right or wrong thing,” she adds.

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To find out where your local support group is head to our Neighbourhood section, and for more info, contact the NAS. If your child has autism, we’d love you to tell us what’s worked (or not worked!) for you…

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