Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | August 28, 2012

Back to School: An Autistic’s tips for surviving the start of school.

It’s that time again, and since it’s such a difficult time in so many people’s lives, I thought I’d offer a few things that I did to help make “back to school” more safe and tolerable, as well as a few things that were pretty awful and avoidable. Here are a few of my back to school “do’s” and “don’ts”. Remember, while these guidelines, I feel, are very good and apply to most people, they are coming specifically from my experiences. What works for me may or may not work for your child.

DO NOT: Force your child to dress up fancy on the first day. My mother always insisted that I wear a dress on the first day of school, and it was the single most awful thing for me. I abhor wearing dresses – the cloth fits me all wrong, its sensory hell, and I don’t like them.

DO: Let your child pick out their outfit (with guidance if necessary), and lay it out the night before. By both of you working together to pick an outfit the night before, anxieties about “what will I wear” are reduced. Additionally, having the outfit picked out the night before speeds up getting out the door the next day.

DO: get a list of school supplies and put together a backpack WITH your child. This was the single most comforting thing that my parents did with me. I loved school supplies – pencils, pens, erasers, notebooks, folders, you name it. So every year, during the week before school starting, my parents would work with me to pick out my school supplies for the year. We tried to reuse things from around the house, but if something was missing, a few days before school, we would make the trip to staples, a store I absolutely adored. We would always go armed with a list that I helped to create – this taught me organization, and also how to purchase things I need, but not go overboard. As I got older, my parents would even give me a small budget that I would get to spend on “back to school supplies”. If I wanted something outside of the budget, I would have to figure out how to do that. Money Management Win. In addition, I would also pack all my things together. As I got older, I made my folders and assignment notebooks and binders well before school started. This always helped me to feel more in control of my classes – if my organization was done ahead of time, it made me calmer at school.

DO NOT: leave packing the school bag until the last minute. This causes undue stress, and takes the child out of the process. I was always more comfortable with a new situation if I had a chance to help control it beforehand.

DO: take your child to the school over the summer. Try to arrange coming at a time when the teacher is in the classroom setting up, so that they can meet their teacher and see their surroundings. Plan to do something special afterwards, like a trip to the park to relax, or a visit to the ice cream shop.

DO: help your child learn to self-advocate. If you are the type of parent who writes a short “introduction to my child” card or letter that you send to the teacher, try to involve your child. Ask them what they would like their new teacher to know about them. Whatever their response is, put it in. Even if it is something like “I don’t like ants” or “purple!” that is valuable information the teacher may be able to use to better understand your child. Tell them about other things you are putting in the letter. This helps to build self-awareness, and will give your child the beginnings of vocabulary and tools to learn to advocate for themselves if necessary. Please note, this won’t happen overnight. It takes repetition, patience and a willingness to make mistakes. But plant the seeds early, and your child will blossom.

DO: talk to your child about school starting up again. Fear of the unknown was always a huge thing for me – the more I knew, the less anxious I was (by and large… there are always exceptions to this.)

DO NOT: pack your child a “healthy” lunch full of food they are not wild about. This was a big one for me in preschool – my mother always packed me a “healthy” lunch, full of sensory-awfulness for me. I rarely ate lunch. This caused me to be extremely irritable and unhappy all through the day: not the best for learning. Plus, during the first few days of school, there’s lots of stomach jitters and nervousness – it’s even harder to stomach “yucky” food. Also, knowing you won’t like your lunch increases anxieties even more… especially if you have to eat in the lunch room and its noisy and insane and already sensory overload.

DO: Ask your child what they would like in their lunch. If they are old enough and able to focus for a few minutes, have them help in preparing it. This not only teaches skills that can be used later on in meal-planning and independent living, but it also ensures that your child will be more likely to actually EAT lunch. After the preschool lunch fiasco, my mother decided that I would have to make my own lunch if I wanted to eat. Not the best way to teach someone about how to make their lunch, but knowing what I had to eat everyday was a blessing.

DO: try to pack a special something for your student in their backpack. Maybe it’s a small stuffed animal or stim toy. Maybe it’s a little note saying “I love you”. Just a little something that will make them happy and give them a little extra lift when they discover it in their school bag. Don’t hide it too well, though, or they may not find it! Also, if your child likes to read, pack a new book for them to discover, or a time-worn favorite that brings comfort. There’s nothing wrong with reading – in fact, it’s a really great thing. So have a book or two available for your child to read if things get to be too much. Never underestimate the power of a comfort-item.

DO NOT: tell them that they will not do well in school. This seems like a no-brainer, but my parents did a pretty darn bad job of instilling confidence in me.

DO: go over the schedule for the week with your student. First weeks are often filled with half-days and abbreviated schedules. This is even more confusing, because breaks in routine are common and very difficult. Visual aids and confirmation with the teacher help with this. I used to go to school with a written schedule of my day in my pocket, and it helped keep me calm, because then I could always check what was coming next and when.

DO: practice getting up and out the door on time for at least 3 days before school actually starts. If you practice your morning routine several times before the big day, it won’t be so difficult on that day. Just one more unknown to cross off the list.

DO: try to relax. How you’re feeling will affect your child. We pick up on emotions and when mom and/or dad is anxious, we will be even more anxious. Repetition, social stories, and practice runs are all great ways to help keep the first few days of school less stressful. Finding ways to reduce simple sensory overloads (clothes, food, sound, lights) will help ensure a calmer, happier kid, who is more ready to learn.

DO: Have confidence in your child’s abilities. They are smart, capable, and ready to learn, if given the right environment and right tools. Help to provide those tools, and they will grow into the best people they can be.

Happy Back-to-School season!


  1. Unfortunately we’ve now had to home school our son, but this is all excellent advice, especially (from my experience) the preparation to avoid last minute rushing and anxiety.

    • Hi! Thanks for stopping by 🙂 I’m a big fan of involvement in the whole process – if you know what’s going on, it’s a lot less scary!

  2. So great! Love this.

  3. Freakin’ words of wisdom here! I really love it when you write these kinds of posts. It lets me know what I’m doing right and what I can work on. I got a bunch of new ideas from this.

    Idea #1: I encourage my kids to help pick out their school supplies, including my son who’s on the spectrum. But I like the idea of the budget. It gives them wiggle room to pick out cooler versions of things like pens, protractors, etc. This one’s happening next year, and from now on.

    Idea #2: I LOVE the idea of slipping something special into the backpack. I’m not waiting ’till next year for this one. They get the note in the backpack tomorrow morning.

    Doing Right: The kids dictate what’s in their lunches, within reason. I love seeing empty lunch boxes come home. It means we all did well.

    Doing Right: I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my kids will thrive in school. I do everything I can to make sure they know this, up to and including late night study sessions with them. Every one of them is doing better than I did at their age. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

    Shoot… I’m going to print this out and share it with my kids tonight so they can tell me what other stuff they want us to start doing. This is an excellent, EXCELLENT list. Thanks, E!


    P.S. Hey, fun news! My son transitioned out of his last SPED class as of yesterday. They moved him straight from SPED English to honors. It’s a big jump, but his biggest road block is organizing prior to writing. That’s what the honors English teacher is focusing on this year, so she doesn’t even think he’s going to miss a beat. He is STOKED. (And so am I!)

    P.P.S. One last one I figured you’d enjoy: The school has uniform t-shirts. Guess what? No tags! When I saw that, I wanted to hug the person who had ordered the tagless shirts. My son loves ’em.

    • Thanks, Tom 🙂 And congrats to your son on the English class!! That’s exciting 🙂 I was a terrible writer in high school until I jumped up from “normal” to “honors” English my junior year, and had an utterly fantastic teacher. I was still a pretty crappy writer in her class (my best essay was a B/B+, and most of them were Cs), but after that class, I actually learned to write.

  4. Re, this one: “DO: take your child to the school over the summer. Try to arrange coming at a time when the teacher is in the classroom setting up, so that they can meet their teacher and see their surroundings. Plan to do something special afterwards, like a trip to the park to relax, or a visit to the ice cream shop.”

    Great for almost any child (on the spectrum or not) nervous about a new school year. But if the child is transitioning from one school to another (i.e., the whole building is new for them, not just the one classroom or the one teacher), then I would suggest perhaps at least one additional trip just to tour the building, get a sense of where the bathrooms are and other important locations such as cafeteria, gym, etc. Let them become a little familiar with the building during the summer when things are quiet so they don’t have to deal with a brand new (for them) building while also dealing with the sensory overload of crowded hallways.

    • Absolutely! Getting to know the building in addition to the classroom can be a blessing. When I was in elementary school, I once went into the wrong bathroom because I didn’t know the hallway we all had to use, and got lost.

  5. Such good advice, E.! I had to learn most of that stuff along the way with my son. I was one of those Moms who wanted the boys to “look their best” on the first day of school! I sent my poor kid , with all of his many sensory issues, off to school in stiff, poly-cotton blend pants and scratchy pique cotton polo shirts. He kept having tough days, of course. He tried to disrobe, ripped his shirt, etc. I learned to respect Jay’s sensitivities, finally. I sent him happily off to school wearing his favorite shorts and a t-shirt and canvas slip-on shoes, until about mid-November. After that, he wore sweat pants and t-shirts. He still dresses this way.

    I also learned (after a couple of years!) about familiarizing Jay with the room he would be in, asking to meet with his 1:1 aide before start of school, and even to meet the school bus driver and have Jay sit on her bus and look around while I chatted with her. These things aren’t hard to do and make a big difference. You helped a lot of kids & Moms today!!

  6. Add in to find out from the school what their emergency plans are (in case of fire alarms etc) and review the path they take during those events. I ALWAYS got lost and overwhelmed during fire alarm drills. I followed the crowd and lost my teacher, my classmates, and got really scared. It was bad enough with the noise.
    Review the different drills like tornado drills too, so they know what to expect if it happens. Knowing is a big part in lessening anxiety.

    • Good thought on that, Sila! Fire alarms always sent me tailspinning. Even now, the memory of my elementary school fire alarm sets me running for cover.

  7. Love these. Some apply to us, some don’t, but they are all good ideas. I most especially like the part about lunch. I used to pack a big lunch with half of it not being now what my son liked, but what I knew looked more acceptable. Now, I just pack what he eats and if others judge, well then they can! They’re aren’t the ones filling his lunch bag with food that is certain to be wasted.

    • 🙂 Yes, definitely not everything applies to everyone, but the general themes, I think, are things to remember and consider. Happy back-to-school-season. 🙂

  8. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day at school lunch for about 9 years, I think!

    But as for your suggestion for packing a special something – I would make the remark that it’s better if it’s something new and not something the other kids can torture you with by “playing” keep away.

    • I definitely agree that you don’t want to invite the other kids to bully your kid. But, I don’t know, I don’t like living my life in fear of what others might do to me if I do something…

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