By Raising Children Network
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Active school kids with hats in the playground
Once you’ve chosen a school for your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the next step is getting your child ready to start.

Preparing to start school

It’s normal to feel anxious about your child starting school. If your child has ASD, you might have extra concerns about preparing her for the transition to school.

For example, you might be worried about how he’ll go with learning a new set of routines and activities. But with a bit of planning, you can help your child start school successfully.

If your child is starting school, moving schools or changing teacher, it can help to develop a profile of your child. It can describe your child’s strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and any other information that you think teachers will find useful. You can give the profile to your child’s new teacher.

Making a successful transition

When you’re getting your child ready to start school, planning ahead is a good idea. And as a general rule, slow and steady works best. There are also some simple strategies that can help make the transition successful:

  • building familiarity
  • practising
  • organising
  • making transition plans.

Building familiarity
Once you’ve chosen your child’s school, it can be very helpful to slowly introduce the things that she’ll need for the school day. This way she can get familiar with them before she starts school. It can also help reduce anxiety about having too much change in one go.

For example, you could have your child’s new school bag, lunch box or uniform lying out in the open so he can get used to seeing it around.

Helping your child get used to the school itself can be done in small steps.

You could start with just walking or driving past when you’re on normal trips to other places. This will help your child see the school as part of her everyday routine. Visiting the school out of hours could be the next step. If you can, try to do this several times so that your child gets to know the school environment. It’s best to do this before you start any formal transition plan that involves visiting the classrooms.

You could also make a Social Story™ about starting school or a visual storybook with photos of the school, classroom and new teacher. This can help your child understand what to expect – and what other people will expect him to do. If your child understands the concept of time, a countdown calendar to the day he starts school can help cut down anxiety about when it will happen.

Practising at home before your child starts school can help her feel familiar with the new routines and activities. It can also help you spot any potential problems and find solutions before your child actually starts. For example, you could practise:

  • putting her school uniform on 
  • eating out of a lunch box
  • walking to school
  • wearing school shoes
  • following a visual timetable.

For many children, a school uniform feels very different from the clothes they usually wear. The labels or the type of fabric can upset a child with sensory sensitivities. If your child practises wearing the uniform ahead of time, you can work out a way round these sensitivities. It might be as simple as removing labels, or finding another fabric your child can wear under the uniform to reduce irritation.

Being organised and ready for when your child starts school will ease the stress and help it go well. It’s a good idea to make sure you and your child have everything you need well in advance. Schools usually give you a comprehensive list of what your child will need, meaning you can buy – or make or borrow – it in plenty of time.

You might also need to change your household routines to smooth the transition process. 

An example routine
Steven’s mum and dad work shifts. To prepare Steven for starting school, they organised their morning so it worked for everyone. With the help of their early intervention teacher, they came up with a plan to follow each school day.

They wrote down everything Steven needed to do before school, and put the activities into sequence. They put all the things Steven needed for his morning routine in set places. They packed his lunch box each night and put it in the fridge. His school shoes went by the front door. They took photos and made a visual plan of Steven’s morning routine.

Steven’s parents followed the plan for the first two weeks, then reviewed it to see how well it was working.

Making transition plans
You can talk to your early intervention provider or kindergarten teacher about developing a transition plan for starting school. Ideally, the plan for the transition to school would start at the beginning of your child’s last year at preschool.

Your early intervention provider will have had lots of experience in helping other children with ASD make the transition to school. They’ll be able to give specific advice about your child and the kinds of strategies most likely to be successful for him. You’ll also be able to discuss strategies that have helped at home.

Your provider will work with the school on the more formal aspects of the plan, such as making sure the school has all the information it needs about your child’s support needs and learning styles. They might also be able to help you set up structured visits before the first official day. 

These same strategies can also work well when your child moves on to secondary school. Try to familiarise your child with the new routine, visit the school, and create a visual schedule with photos of the school. You might like to read more about secondary school transitions

The first few days at school

Starting school can be tiring and confusing for any child. You might see an increase in rigid or repetitive behaviour, or maybe tantrums when you ask your child to do something. The tips below might help during the first few weeks:

At home

  • When your child gets home from school, give her half an hour to settle before starting any usual routines. 
  • Give your child extra time to process and respond to instructions.
  • Try not to ask your child lots of questions about school.

At school

  • Use a communication book with your child’s class teacher or aide to help provide a link between school and home. This can help to highlight a potential problem or solve any problems quickly.
  • Ask for your child to be given a buddy to support him at school.
  • Make sure your child knows a safe place where she can go if she feels overwhelmed – for example, when she moves between classes at school. It can help if your child carries a timetable, so that an adult will know where she should be going and can help out.
  • A help card is a visual reminder to your child to ask an adult for help when he needs it. A help card can help your child feel less stressed and anxious when he gets overwhelmed.
  • A short, timed break during which your child can do her favourite activity or destress for a few minutes might help. If your child doesn’t speak much, a ‘break’ card that she can use when things feel overwhelming might help.

Video Getting ready to start school

In this video, parents of children with ASD talk about getting their children ready to start at different kinds of schools. One mum describes starting school as a ‘huge change’. They all talk about the importance of early planning and preparation.

One mum says she created a visual social story for her son, with pictures of teachers, classrooms and other important areas, such as the toilet.

  • Last updated or reviewed 21-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed with help from Martyn Matthews, Autism Spectrum Disorder Service Leader, IDEA Specialist Services.