Several teachers, administrators, and classroom aids have asked for tips for helping students diagnosed with autism adjust to a new campus and new teachers. They recognize that some individuals with autism struggle with new situations and want some ideas for making the transition to a new campus as smooth as possible.
The most important rule of thumb when looking at strategies for individuals with autism is that, because of the broad spectrum of autism, there are no pre-packaged strategies that will work for every individual. Autism involves challenges with communication, social skills, restrictive obsessions, sensory issues, and behavior challenges. A strategy that is very effective in helping one student transition to a new campus may very well be a catalyst for major problems with another student.
For example, I usually encourage family members and teachers to take youngsters on a tour of the new school at least one week in advance of the school year. This allows the student to meet his teachers, look at the classrooms and cafeteria, walk though the gym and hallways, and generally become familiar with the place. But some youngsters with autism make a smoother transition when they just show up the first day of school. A tour of an empty school several days in advance just raises their anxiety level. Adults in this situation certainly understand the concept of individual differences, but autism magnifies that issue dramatically.
For those students who can benefit from visiting their new school before classes begin, I encourage people to avoid overwhelming the youngster with attention. A rather low-key stroll through the building usually works better than an over-eager welcoming committee.
A pre-school tour also gives adults an opportunity to notice if there are any particular logistical factors that will cause problems. Some individuals with autism have extreme sensory issues that can cause agitation, for example, if an air-conditioning unit is too close to their desk or if the morning announcements are too loud in a room. Some students can take care of books and supplies without assistance, but only if their locker is at the end of row rather than right in the midst of a crowd of other kids and rows of lockers that all look alike.
We need to encourage self-sufficiency and flexibility, of course, so we need to be careful about balancing concessions for a person’s autism with some challenges to help them learn new skills and feel a sense of accomplishment. It is impossible to remove all barriers and to make every single aspect of transition to a new school perfect for every student, whether they are diagnosed with autism or not.
TIP FOR THE DAY: Moderation is probably the key to a successful transition to a new school for a student with autism. We can do what we can to make everyone calm and comfortable as possible, and we can avoid overreacting if a youngster who typically struggles with transition has some problems initially.
NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at talk@FAQautism.com with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. http://FAQautism.com