Transition to a New School

“I’m a bit concerned about my son entering a new school in a new town,” commented parents of a middle-school youngster with autism. “Although he stands back a bit, he seems to get along with other kids, and he will probably manage to muddle through his main-streamed and supported classes ok, but he doesn’t usually pay attention to group instructions about school procedures like how to dress out for gym class or what to do during a fire-drills. How can I help him with an orientation to his new school?”

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SPECIFIC STRATEGY Before school starts, you might want to ask a counselor or other staff member to give your son an informal, low-key, personalized “Welcome Tour.” I find that many of my friends with autism are a bit lost the first few weeks in a new school setting. I remember one young lady who had not understood the message presented at a “Traditions Rally” on the first day of high school. A group of seniors talked to the incoming freshmen about some long-standing school traditions, including that of honoring fallen soldiers from their high school by not walking on the school seal on the floor in the lobby. That tradition had probably been honored for decades, so everyone was horrified when this sweet young freshman stood in the middle of the school seal the next day, holding her back pack, and looking up at the sky light in the dome high above the seal. Fortunately, she didn’t pick up on the disapproval of her peers, and a teacher quietly helped her understand that she needed to stand outside the decorated area on the floor, but that could have easily turned into a disaster.

Purposeful, casual, one-to-one instruction about some of the school traditions, procedures, and expected behaviors would certainly make transition MUCH smoother for individuals with autism, many of whom are visual learners and simply may not process all the verbal instructions given during orientation in a large group setting. Some topics to cover: (1) emergency drills and procedures, (2) expected behavior during morning announcements, (3) location of restrooms, (4) expected behavior in the hallways between classes and during classes, (5) procedure for changing clothes for gym class, (6) location of locker, (7) location of all classes, (8) assistance in developing a routine for getting to each class on time and with the appropriate books and supplies, (9) procedure for riding the school bus, (10) lunchroom procedure, (11) expected behavior during pep rally and other group gatherings, and (12) who to contact with questions or problems. I encourage parents to tag along if appropriate so they can help remind their youngster of the new routines if needed. This personalized “Welcome Tour” can help students with autism get off to a good start in a new school.

NOTE TO LISTENERS AND READERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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