This month's blog article was featured in the September 2022 issue of our digital newsletter, Aspire Wire. To receive future Aspire Wire emails, subscribe here.

by Cornelia Elwood, MA
Parent Support Specialist, Aspire

It’s fall. This means ringing school bells. Loud, packed hallways. New teachers, new classrooms, new schedules. The transition back to school is challenging for everyone, but especially for families of individuals on the autism spectrum, who thrive with consistent structure and predictability. The good news is that there are strategies that support this process. When I understood how to organize and prepare for back-to-school transitions, life for my son, Alexander, shifted from chaotic confusion to greater calm and clarity. When I connected and collaborated with his professional team, he benefitted from looping, coordinated support. My learning how to join him in his stressful time was key to his improved emotion management.  

Have a Plan and Make it Visual. Transitioning back to school is a project with many components to manage, from arranging schedules and transportation to purchasing school supplies. Start by developing a vision and plan. What are the new schedules and routines for morning, after school, and evening? What are the school year screen and sleep plans? Where will homework be done? Next, consider the best ways to share those plans with your child. Individuals with autism profiles are visual thinkers. Writing, images, or videos detailing routines, schedules, instructions, and behavioral expectations can decrease anxiety and support transitions. Remember to preview the plan with your child and carry it out in a step-by-step, manageable way. This approach creates clarity, builds predictability, and helps individuals thrive.

Collaborate to Clarify Expectations. Research shows that the perceived quality of parent/teacher relationships is linked to improved attendance, engagement in class, and the number of trusted relationships a child develops. Support these relationships by organizing and formalizing a home/school communication method. Parent and support team members can work together to determine who communicates what, with whom, when, and how often. Clarifying expectations leads to successful partnerships, and children learn and grow best when significant adults in their lives work together to encourage and support them.

Make the Unfamiliar More Familiar. Transitions are hallmark challenges for autistic individuals. Sensory issues, such as having an over-reactive response to noise or touch, may present struggles. Social and communication differences can lead to confusion. Our anxiety can impact them too. We can support children by joining with them, expressing compassion and letting them know that we are here to help. The key to managing stressful transitions is to make the unfamiliar more familiar. Use visual, concrete supports to familiarize children with new spaces, teachers, schedules, and behavioral expectations, such as taking pictures of different environments for your child to preview and review. Collaborate with their support team to create a multi-environment plan to help them learn how to manage stress. Teach self-care skills such as regular exercise, sleep hygiene, mindfulness and relaxation. Practice self-care yourself, to manage your own stress.

Alexander’s early transitions back to school were stressful and marked by increased meltdowns. As I learned how to organize a plan, connect and collaborate with his support team, and promote our stress management, going back to school became easier and more peaceful. As Alexander got older, I taught him how to prepare for going back to school by himself. We at Aspire understand that this process takes significant effort—an effort that supports our children and everyone with whom they interact. We want you to know that you are not alone. We are here to help you get organized and manage this project and other ASD-related parenting efforts through parent coaching, trainings, and workshops.