Coping with school life: practical strategies to help autistic children

Child writing in school
Schools can be complicated places for children, teachers and parents. Autism practitioner Gina Davies explains that there will invariably be challenges when autistic children start and attend school, but strategies that enable parents and teachers to work in partnership can be very successful.

Starting school is an important milestone in every child’s development and many hopes and dreams are built around how they will get on. It’s a big step for children and parents alike.

Most parents have some worries about how their child will manage, but they can listen to their child talking about their day. Things don’t always go perfectly, but on there are established ways of sorting out problems and celebrating successes.

For parents of children with autism life can be different. Inclusion in a mainstream school is now much easier than previously and it can be both a successful and desirable way forward. However, there are many questions and concerns. Who can they trust to understand their child, give extra help and sort out the odd problems that occur? Will the child have any friends, how will they cope with changing for PE or manage the busy noisy dinner hall and unstructured break times?

All of the thinking and guessing needed to make sense of the verbal and social demands of school takes a lot of extra effort. Children may end come out of school tired and irritable and this subsequently fuels that parental concern about how things are going.

Mainstream school: strategies to help autistic children settle and thrive

The following strategies can be ways in which parents can make life a lot easier for both their autistic child and the school.

1. Communicate information in ways that work

Parents will often have detailed knowledge about their child. The trick is to get this information to the school in practical ways that work amid busy timetables. 

The most important thing is to GO VISUAL; make sure the child can see what is expected by using visual timetables, pictures, photographs, or if the child reads well, through written lists and prompts.

2. Make using visual prompts part of everyday life

Make the use of these supporting strategies easy to use and a matter of habit, not just something talked about or used at when things go wrong. For example:

  • If a child arrives with a visual timetable that reminds them how to change for PE attached to their kit bag, it will more likely be used. 
  • Visual timetables displayed on a lunchbox lid will help a child remember how to cope with packed lunch.
  • A timetable for what to do at break periods in a child’s coat pocket can remove uncertainty at this unstructured time.

3. Catch up with teachers at agreed meetings

Parents are understandably keen to hear and know how their child is doing, to share hints and tips on the best ways of getting their child to do something and the best way to help if things go wrong. There is always that temptation to try and get hold of the teacher at the beginning or end of the school day, but this is usually when teachers are under most pressure so it can be frustrating for all plus the child might well be present and listening in. Communication is easier and more successful if parents can talk to the right person when they have time to listen. A note to the teacher asking them when and how they can be contacted is a great idea.

4. Prepare for meetings with written notes

If parents can write down in bullet points what the problem or worry is and then the suggested solution, this really helps keep the precious time with the class teacher or key worker on track and productive. Here is an example:

  • Lunch times are making Tom anxious and he is not eating his packed lunch.
  • Tom has sensory issues about hearing and sound and this makes him very upset.
  • It would really help at dinnertime if he could wear ear defenders/sit at a table near the door/go in first and sit with someone he knows/go in last when most people have gone and there is no pressure to eat fast.
  • Please could we talk about this and decide what to do?

By adopting a more planned approach, it helps both parents and teachers to find solutions that enable the child to get on better at school.

For many parents, the onset of school is full of butterflies and varying degrees of uncertainty and anxiety. For parents with autistic children there are many more anxieties to cope with and questions to ask.  It’s an undeniable fact that things will go wrong and not always as planned, but if parents and the school have set up a way of working together it is amazing how both children and the staff working with them gain confidence and flourish.

Gina Davies is a qualified Speech and Language Therapist who turned her passion for communication development into practical and intervention strategies for parents and professionals dealing with autism. She has worked with hundreds of autistic children in schools, nurseries and residential settings, and directly with parents, carers and families.