School has started in some states, and parents have been rushing around at the last minute buying stationery, lunchboxes, drink bottles and organising uniforms.
For a mum with a child on the Spectrum, the process of preparing for a child on the spectrum for the beginning of the school year pretty much started the day school finished last year! Most Autism Spectrum-mums make the most of the long summer school holidays to get organised and to mentally ready their child (and themselves!) for the new school year.
So this is a guide, for parents and children, to deal with the often-stressful event of starting a new school or returning for another year.
Do an Audit
If your child is moving on to a new year level at the same school, an audit should be done straight after your child’s finished for the year. Lay all their school items out and see what needs to be thrown or given away, what still fits, what can be reused and what you will need to buy new. Let your child see their new (and old things) – and to be familiar with each item.
Once you have your shopping list, try and get in early. That way, there is plenty of time for new items to be familiar and comfortable by the time school starts.
Take it Slow
Introduce new items and events one by one, not all at once. You don’t want your child feeling overwhelmed as this will create anxiety around the idea of school.
Children on the Spectrum crave familiarity. Knowing where they are going and what is going to happen will also reduce the chance of severe anxiety from an overload of information.
If your child has a new teacher and classroom, try and meet the teacher before school starts. Let them know a bit about your child and their challenges and allow your child and the teacher to establish some kind of rapport or relationship so that your child feels comfortable entering the teacher’s classroom and spending the entire day with them. If possible, get a photo of the teacher.
It’s important for school to be a familiar destination, so if you child is moving onto a new school, try to visit the school during the holidays, walk around the grounds, pop in on the way to other places. Point out the school and talk about it if you pass by. Mention it casually, don’t make a big deal out of it.
If you plan on walking to school or taking public transport, take the route several times and also talk about what might happen in the case of rain or transport delays.
The Importance of Routine On Holidays
Generally speaking, children on the Spectrum need order and routine, they need to know what is going to happen so school holidays can be an overwhelming mess of disorganisation.
Get a school routine worked out and start following it in the weeks leading up to that first day. Get up at a set time, have breakfast, get dressed, whatever the routine will be. Stick to it and because you’ve had a few weeks of practice, you will also have the chance to tweak the schedule as you’re definitely going to find things that don’t work. Once you find a routine that’s going to work for you and your child, create a visual schedule to make transitions easier.
Social stories are invaluable. You can talk about the day and what happens at school or you could even make a book with lots of photos of the school and what the school day will look like.
Buy all school uniforms and shoes early. Get your child used to wearing their school uniform. This way, any itchy, irritating labels or tags can be dealt with early and your child will be able to wear in their shoes so that they are comfortable and your child likes wearing them.
Food and eating can be a particularly tricky situation for children on the spectrum. There will be set meal times and children will be expected to eat in allocated areas with a lunchbox. Some schools will also set rules on what food and drink can and can’t be brought to school. Allow your child to get used to eating a packed lunch out of their lunchbox and drinking from their drink bottle. Pack food they are well familiar with, is easy for your child to handle and unwrap… Stick to what they know.
If your child wants a honey sandwich every day for a year, that is nothing unusual… if it keeps them calm and sane – do it.
Help your child to pack and unpack their school bag. Make a list of everything they need to pack each day at home and then before leaving school. A visual guide works really well. You can take photos of all the items, print and laminate it and attach it to their school bag. Try and get into the habit of packing the bag and leaving it at the front door before leaving every morning.
If you can, let your child choose their school bag too… There is nothing more frustrating for your child to see an ocean of the same type of school bag – if they are required to have a special school bag, put some fun coloured tags or ribbons on the bag to make it stand out.
You don’t want your child’s favourite drink bottle or the only hat they will tolerate wearing to go missing and cause a meltdown. Another tip, if your budget allows, buy multiples of these things, just in case!
Stay calm. Mums, I’m talking to you!
Most importantly, your child will be able to sense any nervousness on your part, so it’s important for us mums to keep our cool. Hopefully all the preparation in the months/weeks/days leading up to the first day of school will help us too!
Other Tips for Mums!
- If your child is particularly nervous about school or is having trouble settling in, ask the school if you can sit at the back of the classroom for the first hour or so of school. This gives your child a bit of security knowing you are right there… and slowly reduce the amount of time.
- See if the school has any special ‘clubs’ that your child might enjoy. Lego Club or Pokemon Clubs that are of interest to your child is a great place for them to bond with other kids over an interest.