Back to School for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Be patient and realistic. It could get overwhelming for the parents and the child

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Lawana Jones
Lawana Jones

Many children feel excited about going back to school. But for some children on the autism spectrum, the thought of returning to school feels overwhelming. 

Routine helps many children with autism thrive. The tumultuous 2020-2021 school year was anything but predictable. In addition to typical first-day jitters, children on the autism spectrum may feel particularly uncertain as they begin the new school year.

“At the core of autism is a desire for routines and difficulties with socialization,” said physician Michael Adragna, from UBMD Psychiatry. “Both of those have been enormously challenging in the past year.”

He advises parents to develop a social story to help their children on the spectrum create some predictability.

“Kids who have more of a classic autism and are in a more specialized education setting have difficulty with long conversations about feelings but learn well with pictures and visual aids,” Adragna said.

Parents and children can create a unique social story with four to six illustrations about going back to school, including when to get up, riding the bus, going to class, eating lunch, and completing the school day.

He added that it can also help to visit the school with the children and meet the teachers before school starts.

Whether on or off the spectrum, children feed into their parents’ emotional state. For this reason, Adragna cautions parents to remain calm and reassuring. When it’s time to drop children off, goodbyes should be brief. Teachers know how to distract children and draw them away from focusing on their nervousness. It is better to leave instead of linger.

By helping children move out of their comfort zone, parents can help children grow emotionally.

While Mary Brzustowicz likes using visual supports, as a family navigator with AutismUp in Rochester, she realizes that some children who are very rigid thinkers may balk if they arrive at their classroom to find a blue desk and the photos showed a green desk.

“That’s where a cartoon desk is helpful,” she said.

Going from lax summer bedtimes to school night bedtimes should not happen overnight. Brzustowicz said that beginning the transition three weeks in advance of school’s start can help ensure children are well-rested for school.

Parents are experts in their own children, so Brzustowicz encourages them to stay in contact with the school to share learning strategies that work.

“We always recommend for parents is to print out a page about your child,” she said. “What are their preferred things, strengths and weaknesses? Preferred topics? When perhaps the classroom teacher sees your child is getting the wiggles, maybe incorporate a Thomas the Train illustration into the math lesson. It can deescalate them. If the parent doesn’t share that, the teacher won’t know that.”

Parents should also remain open to the school’s feedback and try to share regularly through a folder, emails or whatever means is easiest for both the parent and school personnel. By keeping a dated log of communication, parents can better track trends and know who said what and when they said it.

“The boat goes much better if we’re rowing in the same direction,” Brzustowicz said. “We need to be willing to work as a team. Keep all your communication respectful. Sometimes, the parent, yours truly included, needs to be open to what the school is saying, too.”

A child’s special needs adds challenges to the already enormous undertaking of being a parent. Lawana Jones, president and CEO of The Autism Council of Rochester, reminds parents to care for themselves.

“Focus on what’s going right day by day,” she said. “Find an activity you can do that’s calming. Parents need to remember they’re doing the best they can do.”

Staying in touch with how the child feels also helps parents know they’re doing. Jones suggested using a communication board to convey feelings and concerns. By showing “I feel sad” or “I feel afraid” on the board, children who struggle verbally can still express how their school experience is going.

“Be patient and realistic,” Jones said. “It could get overwhelming for the parents and the child. We need a level of grace, including for the teachers and administration. It really needs to be a partnership.”