Ready for Pre-School

At the tender young age of three, youngsters with autism often embark on an exciting and challenging adventure: pre-school. By its very nature, pre-school requires youngsters to function in three different spheres – group time, free time, and transition from one to another. Each sphere requires different skills, many of which are foreign to little ones diagnosed with autism.

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CIRCLE TIME. Teacher-directed group activities require youngsters to come to the area of the activity and to stay in the area of the activity. Participation requires a child to pay attention to the teacher’s words and actions as well as multiple visual and social cues. Circle Time activities also call for some measure of impulse control – waiting for the teacher, taking turns, keeping hands to self, following directions, and tolerating lots of sounds, sights, and people.

FREE TIME. Many children love recess, but sometimes our friends with autism really struggle with the lack of structure inherent in free-time play. Free time requires them to make decisions about filling that time, to share space and objects with other kids, to play cooperatively or at least tolerate the presence of other kids, and to play independently with minimal supervision and direction from adults. To some extent, the popular technique of having independent play centers or independent learning centers in early childhood classrooms can raise some of the same challenges for youngsters with autism.

TRANSITION. Dealing with the transition between self-directed and teacher-directed activities is a fine art that requires some expertise. A youngster needs to learn to stop what they are doing and come when called, to stand and wait in line, to follow classroom routines without much supervision, to deal with multiple directions, to follow the social cues of their fellow students and of their teachers, and to focus on a task and complete it with minimal assistance.

Yikes! This list makes it sound more challenging to start pre-school than to start graduate school! We will discuss some fun and effective ways to help your pre-schooler with autism learn these classroom survival skills in upcoming podcasts. Meanwhile, just relax and remember that pre-school can be a great adventure in spite of some rocky paths and landslides. A wise person once said, “If a mountain were smooth, you couldn’t climb it.”

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: 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. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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