Preparing for the School Year
Dr. Cathy Pratt, BCBA-D
Director, Indiana Resource Center for Autism
Anticipating the beginning of the school year can create anxiety for both family members and for their sons/daughters on the autism spectrum. Concerns surround whether your son/daughter will be successful in school, and if the new staff will have a solid understanding of autism spectrum disorders and of your son/daughter. At times, you may know staff and have a good working relationship with them. At other times, staff is unknown and expectations for your son/daughter are unclear. Below are a few tips to help you become a proactive and positive advocate for your son/daughter.
- Many teachers may not have previous experience with students on the autism spectrum or may only have had experience with students quite different from your son/daughter. The IRCA website at https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/irca has several articles that can help educators better understand ASD, including learning characteristics associated with ASD and teaching strategies. Proactively educate. Provide information, but do not overwhelm with too much information. Identify the autism leader in your special education planning district. The list can be found at: https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/local-district-autism-leaders-mentors-coaches. Your local special education district autism leader may be able to assist with training and/or support.
- Staff will need information about how ASD affects your son/daughter. At the end of this article is a form that you can complete and share with your child’s teachers. This form allows you to provide specific information about learning styles, communication systems, medical issues, behavior supports, and other topics. Make sure that you describe your child, and not only in terms related to their ASD (e.g., sense of humor, kind, gentle, smart). Highlight the positive qualities of your son/daughter. Ask that information be shared with relevant staff, including cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers, the school secretary, the school nurse, and administrators. The form is brief so as not to overwhelm staff. Add information as you choose.
- Request information about bus schedules, parent-teacher organizations, school rules, extracurricular options (e.g., clubs, sports), and available resources (e.g., counselors, social workers, nurses). Find out if there is a school website, Facebook, or some other means to stay connected with your child’s progress or events in the school.
- Before beginning the school year in a new school, work to alleviate any anxieties you or your son/ daughter may have about the new setting. Preparation for this move can be facilitated by obtaining a map of the school, a copy of his/her schedule for the fall, a copy of the student handbook and rules, and a list of clubs/extracurricular activities. Ask to take a tour with your son/daughter before the school year begins. Request a list of school supplies, and information about school holidays, locker combinations, and clothes needed for physical education. Practice getting up in the mornings and eating breakfast so the student and you will know how much time it will take him/her. Start to establish a routine early.
- Visit the lunchroom and have the student learn how to navigate the lunchroom, where to sit, and the rules of the lunchroom (e.g., going through the lunch line, sitting down in the lunchroom, etc.). Work with the staff to develop a social narrative or visual task analysis if needed.
- Ask the school to identify key people or a mentor the student can contact if s/he is having a difficult time adjusting or understanding a certain situation. Ask for the name and contact information for this person. This is especially important if your son/daughter is in middle school or high school.
- If possible, obtain pictures of your student’s teachers and staff, bus driver, cafeteria workers, etc. Rehearse names and share pictures with your son or daughter.
- Classmates of the new student also may need information. This should be provided in a respectful manner and without stigmatizing the student on the autism spectrum. Talk to the teacher about how classmates will be informed. IRCA has articles that can help with educating elementary age students and secondary age students at https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/Growing-Up-Together.
- At the very beginning of the new school year, establish methods and a schedule for communicating between home and school. Suggestions for maintaining ongoing communication include journals, daily progress notes, mid-term grades, scheduled appointments or phone calls, emails, informal meetings, report cards, or parent-teacher conferences. Tell teachers the method of communication that works best for you (e.g., text, email, phone calls). On our website are forms that can be used to facilitate home school communication at https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/Home-School-Communication. Be respectful of teacher’s time while in the classroom with students. Ask them the best hours to reach them.
- Be clear and proactive about what you hope for with your child. When school and home work more closely together, your son/daughter is the ultimate winner.
- At times rumors will circulate about your district, school, or personnel. If you hear a rumor, go to the source that the rumor is about and have a conversation. Not everything on listservs, Facebook, and email is accurate. Do not jump to judgment. Your only goal should be to ensure that all work collaboratively on behalf of your son/daughter.
The ultimate goal is to promote a successful experience for both your child and for you. By proactively and positively working with the school, challenges can be minimized and trust built.
Pratt, C. (2017) For Parents: Preparing for the School Year. The Reporter, 22 (2). Retrieved from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/for-parents-preparing-for-the-school-year.