Autism Spectrum and the transition from the fun and freedom of summer to a school schedule can be challenging. The sun, water, and lazy days. We look forward to those days and need them as well. Just time to let go of our crazy schedules for a little bit and relax.
That transition from summer to school is rough for autism spectrum students and teachers. Moving from our own schedule to someone else’s time frame is, in a word, exhausting.
Students with special needs on the autism spectrum often have trouble with transitions, however. Security and safety lie within a structure and when changed even a little, change can make their foundation feel unstable.
No worries though. Let’s look at some ways to make this transition from summertime to school time less scary and maybe more fun.
Begin to work the upcoming change, be it big or small, into your daily conversation. Start early to allow a gradual acceptance of this new schedule. A big “talk” isn’t necessary here. Keep your discussion casual and light. Explain that a change is coming, and you fully believe he will handle it well. Emotions about the transition are expected and welcome.
The unknown is scary. Take some of the fear away by practicing what will be new about this change. Let’s say this will be the first year in a school with lockers. Find out when you can go to the school and find his assigned locker. Try out the lock (tricky for most people!). Get a lock for the home that he can practice his new combination with and experience success.
Make it visible. Write his new schedule out on paper. Put it in a planner. Post it on a calendar. Create a computer schedule. Create post-it notes with reminders. I like to use a large wipe off calendar and markers. You can use colors, symbols, and write in special events and reminders.
As the new event comes closer, make time adjustments early. Will the new schedule require waking up earlier? Will a favorite activity be affected by this change? Make slow changes early and gradually. Move bedtime back by a few minutes a week. Find a new time for the same favorite activity so that change isn’t felt as a loss.
Change is a way of life so why not make it fun? One of the best ways to face uncertainty is a celebration. There are so many ways to make a transition special, here are a few:
A fun family dinner/cookout
Make a new and special cookie to share
A new book
I’m not a big fan of changes and neither are most people I know. We get comfortable and develop routines. When we must let go of our comfort zone then we have to find a new normal which takes some work. So, remember to try and make one small transition at a time. Then stop and allow time for adjustment.
Place people, beloved items, places, and events that represent safety, joy, and security throughout his day.
Think of it this way. This new transition feels full of unknowns. Put security markers, items of familiarity all along the path of his day. Ie, a new school is scary, but your friend John is in your class, you get to eat lunch with the same people you ate with last year, your favorite book is in your backpack, a picture of your brother and our dog is in your locker and you ride the bus with a friend from the neighborhood.
When making a transition spend a little time getting to know new faces early. Make some cookies and go say hi to a few people who he will be spending time with. Make it short and simple. Everyone likes a cookie and a smile. Then go home and allow him to process.
Teach him that you believe in his ability to cope and problem solve. A lot of anxiety is generated by feeling unable to help yourself. Maybe a goal is to ask for a schedule change at school. Talk this process through and then have him start with the first step. Praise him each step of the way regardless of the outcome. Truth be told none of us always gets what we want, but it’s always worth asking.
On the days when it feels like everything went wrong, find the one good thing. Maybe he has to tell you every single thing that was wrong with the day first. Fine. Then help him find the one good thing. It’s there in some small, silly, or weird way.
Start early using a clock. Make it simple. Use a plain clock with numbers. Place a small sticker on the clock. When the hand gets to the sticker we have to leave, so make sure your shoes are on.
Create a small notebook of pictures either from a camera or cut out from magazines. Make a page of what my day is like now. Make another page of what my day will be like when school starts. Add pictures and words or journal entries if appropriate.
Remember to adjust his eating schedule along with his daily schedule. Our bodies tend to get hungry at the same times we are used to eating. Slowly adjust meals and snacks to match the up and coming days.
Don’t underestimate the mind’s need to process change. Be extra careful about over-scheduling time during a transition. Allow time for free play, naps, or quiet time.
When the IEP is developed ask for transition support to be built into the IEP. These can include:
Leave for the next class either before or after other students have changed classes to avoid the crowds.
Leave class to talk to a teacher, counselor, principal, etc. to calm down or talk through anxiety
Eat lunch in a quiet space
Stand outside the classroom for x amount of minutes to deescalate.
As the transition occurs blend the old and new days. What can you still hold on to from summer? The pool? Cookouts? Spending time with a friend. Incorporate those.
Traditions connect us to our heritage and families over time. Could you think of some back to school traditions that you have or could start?
Allow for a block of time (you pick the length) to say anything he wants about the transition. A lot of emotions are churning around and need somewhere to go. Be a listener without giving advice unless it’s asked for. Let him know when time is up and tell him he did a great job. Repeat tomorrow.
Transitions are hard emotional work. Hand out loads of praise and encouragement for each step in the right direction.
Remember to take care of you. You are an amazing caregiver. Schedule some me-time, really!! Small or big find a way to do nice things for yourself. Buy that coffee, go shopping, plan a getaway. Remember that having fun things planned in your future boosts your mood as well as giving you something to look forward to!!