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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lisa Marnell, OTD, MBA

3 Ways to Support Autistic Children as they Transition INTO School

Today I will address a challenging transition for many children, namely walking INTO school at the start of a new day. This transition can be especially tough for autistic students.

I am writing this blog post in early September, so this is especially relevant as kids begin a new school year. Let's start by asking some questions to understand what is happening and how we can better support our kids.

WHY is starting a new school day challenging?

Sensory Input . . . Communication . . . .and Social Challenges:

A study found that 95% of autistic children presented with sensory processing challenges, which included an over-responsivity to sensory input. This would include noise, the tactile feel of objects, and visual clutter (such as busy movement of people or too many papers attached to a wall) (Baker et al., 2008). Yet, another study reported that only 5 to 13% of neurotypical kids demonstrate sensory over-reactivity (Ahn et al., 2004).

Knowing this research informs us that our autistic students are very likely to present with sensory processing challenges. Many of our kids may be overwhelmed at the idea of stepping into a busy, loud, and cluttered classroom - it's just too much for their nervous systems. Unfortunately, sensitivity to sensory input raises a child's stress level, so when they face this stress every morning, they are starting their day in a heightened state of anxiety.

Different communication styles are also common in autism and other neurodivergent populations. Autistic individuals tend to prefer more in-depth discussion as opposed to surface-level, small talk conversations. So, stepping into a busy room where many light-hearted and non-meaningful chatter is taking place may be stressful and dysregulating. Also, social abilities are different in autism, and an autistic child may find nuance or sarcasm difficult to follow and understand. The "Joking around" at the start of the day may prove stressful.

So, these and other factors make it difficult to begin the school day. Though it is very possible that the child's experience may improve during the day, when the teacher imposes more routine and structure into the school day. But, in the meantime, how can we best support an autistic child as he steps into their classroom and their school world every morning?

Support #1: Visual Schedule for Entering School

Visual supports for the "Go to School" routine can make a world of difference for an autistic child. For the younger, non-speaking, or more concrete thinking student, take specific pictures of each step of the transition. A simple schedule can be made using the following pictures:

1- The car in the driveway

2- The car parked in a specific area of the school parking lot

3- The front of the school with the entrance door

4- The teacher

5- The area of the classroom or school where the child starts their day

6- An enjoyable activity the child can engage in before school begins

For children with strengths in reading, visual schedules can be written on an index card for a child to carry to the car and into school. Or autistic kids who can process verbal information may do well to have a parent state the steps prior to starting the car and heading to school.

During this process of transitioning into school, it is important for parents and teachers to acknowledge the following:

1- The child's feelings are valid; the struggle is real; reactivity to this transition arises from the sympathetic nervous system and is outside of the child's control

2- The child has strategies to use for self-calming and reassurance (self-calming scripts, sensory supports, feel-good mood boosters or activities the child enjoys)

Support #2: Plan a Novel Transition into School

It was mentioned above that a child may find it overstimulating and very dysregulating to step into a busy classroom. So . . . DON'T have a child step into a busy classroom. Try one of the following ideas instead.

The first option is to bring the child to school early. With a slightly early drop-off, a child may be the first student to arrive. This means the classroom is calm and quiet. A teacher can have a favorite activity available and allow the child time to settle and to feel regulated before other students arrive.

Conversely, a child could be brought to school at a later time. For example, a fifteen-minute delay could mean that the classroom is quiet, the teacher has begun the day, and other students are relaxed and engaged.

Another option is for a student to start their day in another classroom or part of the school to allow time to gently transition and for calming and self-regulation. Or, a parent, teacher, or paraprofessional could stay with a child for the first several minutes and provide co-regulation support.

Support #3: Specific Transition Strategies

Remember to consider actual, intentional supports for when a child is walking into school and into the room where they start their day. Autistic children often do well when holding a transition object - one of my clients from last year carried a small pouch of battery chargers which allowed him to feel organized and ready to learn and engage.

Alternatively, explore sensory strategies like carrying a heavy backpack, chewing gum or an oral motor chew, wearing a weighted vest, or playing with a tactile fidget toy.

What are strategies that you use to support children as they transitions into school? What works? What doesn't?

More from Dr. Lisa Marnell and Kids Master Skills . . .

If you want to learn more ways to support your autistic students, watch my FREE MasterClass that offers you proactive supports for sensory sensitive children and teens.

As always, feel welcome to touch base with me by e-mail at

I would love to hear about your successes, your struggles, and any questions or comments you have! Let me know if this post was helpful.

Join my Autism Facebook group and keep up to date as I post more tips to help teachers, parents, and therapists help kids master skills! Join HERE:

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