Moving to a new school is a big event in a young person’s life. Whether it be attending school for the first time or transferring to another school, the transition can cause fear or anxiety for a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Working together, parents and staff can help make this move a successful one by keeping in mind that a person with ASD needs predictability.
For higher functioning individuals, it is important discuss why there is a move to a new school. Maybe a move to a new city or neighbourhood was necessary for work or personal reasons. A new school may better address the needs of the child. Perhaps the move has to do leaving elementary school for middle or high school. Whatever the reason, be prepared to discuss feelings around a move. The person may not understand or appreciate the reasons for a change of school, but try and talk about the positive aspects of attending a different school. There is always a bright side.
Predictability lessens anxiety. Familiarity with the school environment and routines through visual supports can make a new school transition easier. Here are some ideas to create predictability:
Parents and children need to know what support system the school has. If the child is in an inclusive classroom, are there quiet areas to go to if necessary? Will there be times where the child is pulled from the classroom for one on one work with a therapist or to spend time in a resource room? Identify who the key people in the school who can help when needed such as the principal, vice principal, guidance counselor and office secretary.
If the child will have an aide, it is a good idea to meet with this person before school starts to discuss learning styles, sensory issues and strategies to alleviate anxiety. An aide needs to know what motivates the child to learn and stay on task. For example, using a special interest can engage a child in the learning process.
Make a list of key phrases or certain behaviors and what those mean. My son says, “Do you want to play some more?” when he wants a task to end. He becomes echolalic when he does not understand a question. There are often pre-warning signs that occur before a meltdown happens. It is also important to disclose sleep habits, medications, and special dietary needs. The aide is the person at the child’s side and can often be the first person to spot difficulties.
When a person is new to a school, it is helpful to send an All About Me profile. Things to include in the profile might be:
If special materials were created for the child at the old school, be sure and ask that they go to the new school. Familiarity will lessen anxiety and new knowledge can be built upon previous knowledge and skills.
Here are a few suggestions for preparations to do the week before school starts.
Starting a new school is stressful for anyone, but careful preparation is the key to success. Creating predictability about the school day will lessen anxiety and fear. There will be new challenges to face in a different school, but a solid support system and coping strategies will make the transition to a new school an easier one. Here’s to a great school year!
Many thanks to Maureen Bennie and Autism Awareness Center Inc for their kind permission for the use of this article