Children with autism spectrum disorder: preparing to start primary school
It’s normal to feel anxious about your child starting school. If your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you might have extra concerns about preparing her for the transition to school.
For example, you might be worried about how your child will cope with learning a new set of routines and activities. But with a bit of planning and preparation, you can help your child start school successfully.
Making a successful transition to primary school
When you’re getting your child ready to start primary school, planning ahead is a good idea. As a general rule, slow and steady works best. These simple strategies can help make the transition successful:
- building familiarity
- making transition plans.
It can help to slowly introduce the things that your child needs for the school day. This way your child can get familiar with them before he starts school. It can also help reduce your child’s anxiety about too much change all at once.
For example, you could put out your child’s new school bag, lunch box and uniform so your child can get used to seeing them 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’s happening.
Practising at home before your child starts school can help her feel familiar with the new school routines and activities. It can also help you spot any potential problems and find solutions before your child actually starts. For example, your child 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 children 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. Or you could get second-hand school uniforms, which are worn in and feel softer on the skin.
Being organised and ready for when your child starts school will ease the stress and help things 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 needs, which means you can buy – or make or borrow – things in plenty of time.
You might also need to change your household routines to smooth the transition process.
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 lots of experience in helping children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) make the transition to school. The provider can give you 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 can work with the school on the more formal aspects of the plan, like making sure the school has all the information it needs about your child’s support needs and learning styles. The provider might also be able to help you set up structured visits before the first official day.
The first few days at primary school
Starting school can be tiring and confusing for any child. You might see an increase in rigid or repetitive behaviour, or your child might have tantrums if you ask her to do something. The tips below might help during the first few weeks.
- When your child gets home from school, give him half an hour to settle before starting any usual routines. You might find that your child needs longer at the end of the week when he’s really tired.
- Give your child extra time to process and respond to instructions.
- Try not to ask your child lots of questions about school.
- Use a communication book or exchange regular emails with your child’s class teacher or aide to make the link between school and home. This can help to highlight a potential problem or solve any problems quickly.
- Ask for your child to have a buddy to support her at school.
- Make sure your child has a safe place to go if he feels overwhelmed.
- Give your child a help card. This is a visual reminder to your child to ask an adult for help when she needs it. A help card can help your child feel less stressed and anxious when she gets overwhelmed.
- Ask the teacher to give your child short, timed breaks during which your child can do his favourite activity or de-stress for a few minutes. If your child doesn’t speak much, a ‘break’ card that he can use when things feel overwhelming might help.