Helping Students with Autism Successfully Transition into a New School Year

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA
September, like January, is a month of “new beginnings” for many of us. For families with school-aged children, it’s the back-to-school month that requires new clothes and school supplies, as well as plans for healthy lunches and after-school activities.
For parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other special needs, ensuring that the back-to-school experience is successful and enjoyable requires additional planning and preparation, and a supportive team of family members, teachers, and other school personnel. 
If your child is able to understand future events, a calendar can be a very helpful tool to help him or her prepare for school every day. After the big build-up to the first day of school, you can use the calendar to record special school activities or events such as open houses or field trips and then talk about them together so your child will know what to expect.
If your child does not want to go to school, you can use the calendar to talk about the weekends. For example, if your child says, “I don't want to go to school tomorrow,” you might say, “Tomorrow is Thursday, only two more days until Saturday. Do we have school on Saturday? No! We don't.” Then you might talk about special things your family will do over the weekend.
Like all children, children with special needs benefit from a regular routine. To help your child get off to the best possible start every morning, it’s a good idea to set a regular bedtime for him or her and establish both an evening and a morning routine. Using a visual schedule may help your child transition from one activity to the next. For example, you might create a “story board” that includes drawings or pictures of him or her preparing for bed (i.e. putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, looking at a book, saying “goodnight”).
If you haven’t yet had a chance to visit your child’s classroom and meet any new teachers or paraprofessionals, do that as soon as you can. You will want to develop a good relationship with any school personnel who will be working with your child. And be sure you have provided the school with important information about your child including special health concerns (such as medications or food allergies), likes and dislikes, and what might upset him or her and trigger tantrum-like behaviors. 
Transitioning to a new school year can be a challenge for students with ASD or other developmental disabilities, but with planning and support from the family and the educational team, it can be a pleasant and rewarding experience.
Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA, is Executive Director of the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield, Mass. She can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-785-5462 or at

May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 65 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. May Institute operates four schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800-778-7601.