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Back-to-School: Autism in the Classroom

VP of Autism Speaks shares strategies for a successful school year

Back-to-School: Autism in the Classroom

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As we say goodbye to the final days of summer vacation, autistic children and their parents and guardians can face heightened anxiety. While this time of year can feel overwhelming, there are tips and strategies that can help facilitate a smooth transition from summer into fall.

Everyone’s situation is unique, but these are tried and tested strategies to help set families up for success.

Before the Bell Rings: Make a Plan

Part of the planning process should include prepping your child for the experiences the new school year will bring. Knowing what to expect can help ease the stress around meeting a new teacher and transitioning to a new classroom or school.

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  • Shifting from a summer routine back to rising early for school can be a challenging part of the transition, so consider working with your child to adjust their wake-up and bedtimes in advance of the school year.
  • If your child is attending a new school, taking a tour in advance can help them become comfortable with their surroundings. While touring, consider taking pictures of their classrooms, cafeteria, library and other parts of the school to create a storybook they can review before school begins.
  • Another important part of planning is arranging meetings with your child’s success team, which includes their teacher, aides (if applicable), school therapist and anyone else who will be working with your child for extended periods of time.
  • An IEP, or an Individualized Education Program, can help parents and caregivers make sure their child is receiving the best possible education tailored to their unique strengths and challenges. This plan will evolve over the course of a child’s school years, so it’s important to reassess their needs and where they may need more or less support at the start of each year. Both parents and children are important members of the IEP team.
  • Be sure to include your safety plan in the IEP with considerations for all settings and all relevant staff, including travel to and from school, mealtimes, recess and any other transitions throughout the day. Autism Speaks also offers a School Community Tool Kit that provides helpful information about students with autism to promote understanding and kindness at school and is a great training resource for all members of the school community.
  • For parents of adolescent children who have begun transition planning, include your teen in IEP planning and goal setting. It’s a great way to help them build self-advocacy skills.
  • You can also meet the extension of the success team, which includes more members of the school community, including your child’s principal, nurse, bus driver and lunch staff. It can be helpful to create and share a document with fun facts about your child, what makes them unique, their strengths and challenges, sensory sensitivities and other support needs.
two girls holding hands wearing backpacks walking into school iStock

School is in Session

The first day of school is here, and you’ve done everything you can to prepare. Now what?

  • Once you have an idea of your child’s day-to-day schedule, create a daily schedule to review in the mornings. Whenever possible, provide visual supports like charts, calendars or personalized teaching stories that can support communication and help autistic children to better understand what to expect in new situations. You can spend time with your child going over any new additions to the schedule together, leaving plenty of time for any questions. Revisit this tool throughout the school year as schedules change
  • It’s also important to check in with your child’s success team consistently throughout the year so you can track progress, celebrate triumphs and manage challenges as they arise.
  • Whether it is your child’s first year receiving special education services or their 10th, one of the most important things to remember is that a parent may call an IEP meeting at any time during the year to reassess and adjust the plan as needed.
  • Though not everyone’s situation may allow for it, another way of staying involved in your child’s school experience is through volunteering, and as an added bonus you may be able to connect with other parents with similar experiences.
  • You can also connect with the autism community by participating in the Autism Speaks’ Walk program, featuring walk events across the nation, giving kids and families the opportunity to meet with those who may have faced similar experiences, successes and challenges with autism. Parents of children with autism often report how valuable it is to connect with other parents who know what it’s like to walk in their shoes. It is also a great way to encourage kids to socialize with peers and find a network of support.
kids walking onto a school bus iStock

What’s next? Do Your Homework for Next Year

Look at the big picture. No two students with autism are the same and the support provided by the school should be specific to each student’s unique needs.

  • Autism support and services vary widely from state to state, so it’s important to understand the resources available for your child and be informed about your child’s rights during their school years — particularly if you’re not getting the support your child needs.
  • With so many teens leaving the school system unequipped to take on the world, it is important to be aware of different services across the nation that can help them with employment, housing, mental health and advocacy.
  • Review resources like Autism by the Numbers (ABN) by Autism Speaks which provides state-by-state breakdowns of key autism data, including education stats (e.g., 73.6% of autistic students receiving special education graduate with a high school diploma and another 19.3% finish with certificates) that can help parents assess education options across the United States.

School is meant to be a safe place where children can learn and grow into unique individuals on a path to reaching their full potential. While heading back to school can be challenging, your support, planning and patience will be an integral part of your child’s success. Don’t be afraid to advocate for your child’s needs and remember — while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, with the right support and services, students with autism and their families can make it through the back-to-school season and thrive during the school year.

Author:

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Lindsay Naeder joined Autism Speaks in 2012. Lindsay leads the organization’s national Autism Response Team (ART) and Outreach teams to deliver Autism Speaks mission priorities through Information and referral and educational community programs and events.

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