There’s a lot to love about the lazy days of summer — until the reality of back-to-school sets in. Regardless of your child’s spot on the autism or developmental spectrum, the return to a mostly indoor school routine can be jarring, especially if your child thrives on multisensory experiences — beach! pool! parks! — that make summer famous.
“The biggest challenge for kids is going from the routine of school to the lack of routine during the summer, and then back to structure and routine,” says Chris Purgatori, MOT, OTRL, an Occupational Therapist with Kaufman Children’s Center in West Bloomfield.
To make your child’s return to school smooth, Purgatori suggests incorporating as many senses as possible into the experience. Even if there’s just one week left before school starts, create a multicolored seven-link paper chain and rip one link off each day as a countdown. Or, remove one marble each day from a jar with your child’s picture — complete with backpack and lunchbox — at the bottom. Each activity provides visual and tactile input.
Engage the body
During the school day, your child is required to focus for extended periods of time. “Depending upon the age, a typically developing child has between seven and 15 minutes of engagement where they learn optimally, and then teachers might lead brain breaks or a chance to shake out sillies,” Purgatori explains. “To help with sitting and paying attention, kids benefit from heavy work in the classroom. This might mean picking up and moving a chair from the front of the room to a desk, or pushing a cart to the library. This heavy work engages the proprioceptive system to help children calm and organize themselves.”
Lean into this concept by providing heavy work at home. Ask your child to push a full laundry basket or help carry groceries. Have them put books in a backpack and carry it on an adventure in the house — even while they do chores. “Depending on the child, you can provide one-step or multi-step instructions, like put your socks away or go into the kitchen, remove the garbage bag and take it outside,” Purgatori suggests.
To sharpen fine motor skills, have your child draw on the sidewalk with chalk, which provides different proprioceptive input from the typical pencil-to-paper experience. “Hide small toys in sand for your child to dig through. Play with play dough for hand strength, then hide beads and buttons in the play dough to find,” Purgatori says. “Put clothespins on the edges of paper, which builds strength and fine motor precision. It’s super old school, but still relevant. String beads on a piece of yarn.” Any art project, especially if it involves scissors, helps get your child closer to school-ready mode.
Prepare and support
Even with just a weekend left before school gets into full swing, you can support your child simply by talking through the school-day routine. “Kids want to know what’s happening, so the more information you can give kids about what to expect, the better it will be,” Purgatori says.
Anticipate the struggle and recognize that emotional outbursts are normal. “Your child has had time to relax over the summer, and now they have to be on for seven hours straight. Home is their safe space, where they can let loose. It’s where asking your child to put their shoes away might put them over the edge,” he says.
Finally, acknowledge your child’s feelings. “We like to say ‘I understand you are frustrated. I know school can be challenging, but you can do it. We are here to help you. You are smart and we can work through it together.’”
Learn more about Kaufman Children’s Center for Speech, Language, Sensory-Motor & Autism Treatment. Visit kidspeech.com.