Your older child with autism probably has several first days of school under their belt, but that doesn’t mean each year’s return to school isn’t a shock to their system. After a relatively unstructured summer, even just an earlier wake-up routine can be jarring, and every parent could use at least a few back-to-school tips for smoothing that transition.
“In general, whenever you have a significant change in routine or schedules, it can be hard to adjust,” says Reena Naami-Dier, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Owner of Spark Center for Autism, an early intervention ABA center in Farmington Hills. “The biggest barrier we have come across when it comes time to return to school after having a more relaxed summer is returning to a more rigid schedule with what could often be considered ‘non-preferred’ activities,” she says, adding that for most kids, school just means challenging things, like sitting in class for extended periods of time.
So how can you maximize what’s left of summer to help your child more easily to the routine of school? Naami-Dier shares her top back-to-school tips for older children with autism, plus some wisdom for coping after the “honeymoon phase,” when the reality of the school year hits.
Adopt structured activities
“Some of the strategies we will often recommend for use with the kids we work with is to still try to incorporate some kind of activities with structure,” Naami-Dier says. Making these activities fun — rather than strictly educational — is key. “Getting kids into social groups, summer camps or sports groups can be one of the most effective ways to keep your child in some kind of routine.”
Even if you’re not able to find a camp, art class or other program, use these remaining weeks to create your own structured activities to help ease your child into routine. “Whether that means something like arts and crafts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and time set aside for reading on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or going as far as to have a few makeshift ‘lesson plans,’ having some kind of structure so that kids are still able to have an enjoyable summer, but also keep some of the routines that will be difficult to return to in the fall, can help make that transition back just a little easier,” Naami-Dier suggests.
Seek the benefits of the season
It can be tempting to fill unstructured summer hours with increased ABA therapy hours to make up for what probably seems like missed learning opportunities, but think twice, says Naami-Dier.
“We always stress at our ABA clinic that kids should still be able to be kids,” she says. “Unless your child is more at risk of losing skills and regressing, we will often encourage families to try other opportunities during the summer while maintaining their regular schedule for outside services, like ABA, speech and OT.”
For a chance to learn some skills and have just the right amount of routine, see if your ABA clinic, or another close by, offers a one- or two-week summer camp. “Having these shorter-duration activities would be a good way to manage getting ready for school in August,” she adds.
Talk about what to expect
“Depending on your child’s abilities, it’s always a good idea to start to prepare them by verbally talking to them about going back to school as well,” Naami-Dier says.
Visit your local library for books about going back to school or create a social story that is specific for your child’s experience. If your child is in middle school, verbally walk through their schedule with them so they have a better idea of what to expect.
Watch for the boost that’s followed by a bump
Each situation is different and each child is unique. Some teachers are great at providing a gradual start to the school year, and your child may benefit from that extra time to adjust. You may even breathe a sigh of relief if your child appears to cope well initially.
“It is important to know that some kids will also experience what we call a ‘honeymoon phase.’ They may have a really successful transition to start, but within a few weeks, can show signs of burnout, increased problem behaviors and difficulty managing their new routines and expectations,” says Naami-Dier.
If this is the case, be consistent and lean into your support systems.
“Often ABA providers are watching for these signs to make sure that they are prepared to work with your child, you and your child’s educational team to implement proactive measures to keep your child happy, and help them meet the expectations of their school requirements,” she says.
Balance and transition
If your child is really struggling, think openly about the most appropriate solution, especially if your initial reaction is to fill their day with more services.
“Sometimes there is a tendency to throw more things at your child — more services, more structure. In the end, sometimes this can do more harm than good, and doesn’t allow for kids to be kids,” Naami-Dier says. Rather than add several hours of therapy onto an already long school day, reach out to your service providers and school to come up with a more appropriate schedule.
“While the intention is never for outside services to supplant school services, sometimes it might make more sense to have your child spend a day or two during the week receiving outside services, and then the remaining three to four days in school, and slowly transition back into school, as barriers are determined and worked through,” suggests Naami-Dier.
“This will allow families to have opportunities for their children to spend time either at home with more preferred activities, or to look into extracurricular activities after school,” she says. And this can make all the difference. “Finding an area of interest for your child may take some trial and error, but that can be one of the most effective solutions if your child is struggling to adjust to their time in school.”
Learn more about Spark Center for Autism in Farmington Hills. Visit sparkcenterforautism.com.