Back-To-School Tips For Kids With Autism

By Michael J. Cameron, Ph.D.

Young studentFor children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families, returning to school after a string of relaxed summer days can be stressful, intensifying repetitious verbal and motor behavior on the part of the child. This stress can be reduced or even prevented – for child and parents alike – with the following 10 transitional tips.

Prepare the Teacher

1. Awe the teacher with innovative communication. Teachers are busy, especially during the first few weeks of school. However, the information you have to share regarding your child’s allergies, health-risk behaviors (e.g., wandering), communication style, environmental triggers (e.g., loud bells that signal the change of classroom), primary needs (e.g. bathroom regimens) and Individualized Education Program is important. At Pacific Child and Family Associates, we use Talking Photo Albums to make sharing this information easier. These inexpensive devices allow you to insert pictures – such as a picture of foods your child is allergic to – into transparent sleeves and to record a voice message that the teacher can activate by pressing a button.

2. Establish rapport and engagement. Establish a pattern of kind and considerate communication with your child’s teacher at the beginning of the school year, and be ready to do your part to help ensure your child’s success. Make time each day to help your child organize her or his backpack, complete forms that need to be returned, share important information, review and respond to entries in a communication notebook and assist your child with homework.

Prepare the Child

3. Pre-teach rituals and routines. Gather as much information as possible about the rituals and routines your child’s teacher will follow (e.g., having your child sit on a carpet square during circle time, or requring them to sit cross-legged in response to the phrase “Criss-cross apple sauce”), and pre-teach your child to follow the instructions he or she may encounter in the classroom.

4. Prime with pictures and narrative. Gather pictures of the teacher, principal, school nurse, therapists your child will work with, school building, and the playground. Use them to support the stories you tell your child about the people she or he will meet and the places he or she will go. Create narratives (e.g., text-based information) that your child can read or listen to in order to prepare for the school experience.

5. Promote independence. Equip your child with a visual or narrative-based schedule (a hard copy or one displayed on a tablet, iPad, or Smart Phone if allowed). Outfit your child with essential communication materials including their Picture Exchange Communication System, or Proloquo2Go to facilitate their ability to communicate. Use a Silent Reminder device to prompt personal hygiene routines.

6. Communicate rules around electronics. If your child has an affinity for electronics (e.g., their iPad, hand held gaming devices, classroom computers), gather information about the rules centered on such devices in the classroom, and prepare your child to honor the rules. Avoid frustrating your child by sending him or her to school with an electronic device she or he will not be allowed to use.

Prepare the Family

7. Communicate expectations. Hold a family meeting at least a week before school starts and discuss roles, expectations, and important time changes (e.g., wake-up time on a school day).

8. Use a checklist-driven process. Create checklists to ensure that lunches are made, snacks are packed, backpacks are organized, lunch money is available and spare clothing is ready.

9. Use transitional signals and ease your child through routines. Give your child advance warning about transitions such as having to get out of bed, use age-appropriate and playful songs to support routines, and use signaling devices (e.g., a “Time Timer”, a sand dial, a digital watch, an Amco Color Alert Timer []) to notify your child about time. Avoid abrupt and sudden shifts during the flow of a transition.

10. Optimize behavior regulation. Plan to engage your child in soothing routines to make sure their behavior is at its best before they get to school. Plan to have a gentle “good-bye” ritual and know that what happens at home, in the car or on the bus on the way to school will set the tone for the day.

Dr. Michael Cameron Headshot (July 2014)Michael J. Cameron, Ph.D., BCBA-D, is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (Charter Certificant 1-00-0010), Chief Clinical Officer for Pacific Child and Family Associates (PCFA) and experienced in behavioral medicine, behavioral health assessment, intervention for diverse populations and higher education. Prior to joining PCFA, Dr. Cameron was a tenured associate professor and the founding chair of the Department of Behavior Analysis at Simmons College. For more information, please visit

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