Autism and Back to School Transitions

Back to school can be a time of year filled with mixed emotions for all children and parents. Children may be excited to move up a grade, yet fearful of a new teacher or their closest friends not being in the same class. Parents may be delighted that structure will soon return to their daily life, yet worried about challenges their children will face in the year to come. For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their parents, these negative emotions are often magnified and may very well outweigh the positives. Children with autism struggle with handling transition and change. It can evoke intense emotion and anxiety leading to behavioural issues and total meltdowns.

WHY ARE TRANSITIONS SO DIFFICULT FOR CHILDREN WITH AUTISM?

The brains of individuals with autism process and interpret information in a way that is different from the average person. Particular environmental stimuli or the entire environment often present as overwhelming and confusing. Children with autism often attempt to implement repetition in their lives and resist change in order to minimize the chaos and uncertainty.

HOW MIGHT MY CHILD REACT?

A child with autism might become overrun with emotion and overreact to even a tiny change, such as mom forgetting crackers in the lunch bag. This overreaction could range anywhere from a 3 minute crying fit requiring verbal redirection, to a 1 hour tantrum involving flailing on the floor and throwing things, ultimately requiring physical, visual and verbal supports to get under control. If such a small change or unexpected error can result in such an intense reaction, it is scary to even imagine how difficult starting a new school year might be, particularly for those children who may not have the ability to communicate their fears and frustrations. So many factors change – new teacher, new classroom, new peers, new schedule, new expectations etc…

HOW CAN I HELP WITH THESE BACK TO SCHOOL TRANSITIONS?

While preparation and planning is good for any child, and in fact many adults, it is vital to successful back to school transitions with children with autism. This involves the use of repeated visual and verbal supports, such as:

  • Photos to create familiarity with the unknown
  • Visual schedules to organize the daily routine
  • Social stories to address feelings, provide reasons, redirect and offer resolutions
  • Select specific language and phrases then repeat, repeat, repeat


Amanda Brown is a Speech-Language Pathologist with nearly a decade of experience in providing assessment and treatment to clients in the clinic and community settings. Amanda enjoys working with clients of all ages and applies a strong client-centred approach to her therapy, balanced with family/team collaboration.