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Twelve Red Apples for Returning to School

For a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as their families, returning back to school after a string of relaxed summer days can produce a relevant level of stress. Although the manifestation of stress may include a range of behavioral (e.g., an exacerbation of repetitious verbal and motor behavior) and physiologic changes (e.g., increase in heart rate and adrenaline), stress can be certainly be prevented, reduced, or managed as a result of good planning. Specifically, planning must be centered on the child, the child’s family, and the child’s teacher. Twelve red apples (i.e., recommendations) follow in an effort to prevent or mitigate the stress that a child and family experiences during the transition back to school.

Prepare the Teacher

Awe the Teacher with Innovative Communication. Teachers are busy, especially during the first few weeks of school. However, you may have important information to share with the teacher regarding: (1) allergies, (2) health-risk behaviors (e.g., wandering), (3) communication style, (4) environmental triggers (e.g., loud bells that signal the change of classroom), and (5) your child’s Individualized Education Program. In an effort to communicate critical information to a teacher, staff from Pacific Child and Family Associates have used Talking Photo Albums – these are inexpensive devices that allow you to insert pictures in a transparent sleeve (e.g., the picture of the foods your child is allergic to) and to record a voice message that the teacher can activate by pressing a button on the corner of the sleeve. The device is unique and fun to use. But more importantly, the device can be used as a medium for sharing information about your child.

Establish Rapport and Engagement. Good communication is necessary for all healthy relationships. In consequence, establish a pattern of kind and considerate communication with your child’s teacher at the beginning of the school year. In addition, know that your child’s success in school will be the direct result of the teacher’s capable engagement within the walls of her classroom in conjunction with your engagement within the context of your home. Therefore, do your part. Specifically, make time each day to attend to the organization of your child’s back pack, complete forms that need to be returned, share important information, review and respond to entries in a communication notebook, and assist your child with their homework.

Share Information about Health Risk Behaviors. If your child has a history of engaging in behaviors that put them at risk (e.g., wandering), and could potentially create an emergency situation for the school, ensure that you inform the teacher, and the relevant school administrators, of your child’s behavioral profile. In addition, ensure that your child is outfitted with an identification badge and/or a Global Positioning System so community members can assist in the event of an emergency.

Primary Needs. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder frequency require specific supports centered on their primary needs (e.g., food intake and bowel and bladder regimens). Therefore, communicate all essential information to your child’s teacher and/or classroom aide.

Prepare the Child 

Pre-teach Rituals and Routines. To the extent you can gather information about the rituals and routines your child’s teacher will follow (e.g., having your child sit on a carpet square during circle time, or, require them to sit Indian-style upon hearing the phrase “Criss-cross apple sauce”), you will want to pre-teach your child to follow the instructions they may encounter in the classroom.

Prime with Pictures and Narrative. Gather pictures of the teacher, the principal, the school nurse, the therapists your child will work with (e.g., the Speech and Language Pathologist), the school building, and the playground. Use the pictures to support the stories you tell your child about the people she will meet and the places she will go. Create narratives (e.g., text-based information) that your child can read, or listen to, in order to prepare for their school experience.

Promote Independence. Equip your child with a visual or narrative-based schedule (a hard copy or one displayed on a tablet, iPad, or Smart Phone if allowed) and plan to promote their independence. Outfit your child with their essential communication materials, for example, a Language Master, their Picture Exchange Communication System, or Proloquo2Go to facilitate their ability to communicate. Use a Silent Reminder device to prompt personal hygiene routines.

Communicate Rules around Electronics. If your child has an affinity for electronics (e.g., their iPad, hand held gaming devices, classroom computers), be sure that you gather information about the “rules” centered on such devices in the classroom, and to the extent possible, prepare your child to honor the rules. Avoid situations where your child may be frustrated as a result of being sent to school with an electronic device only to learn that the use of the devise is restricted.

Prepare the Family

Communicate Expectations. Hold a family meeting at least a week before school starts and discuss roles, expectations, and important time changes (e.g., wake-up time on a school day).

Use a Checklist Driven Process. Create checklists to ensure that important routines are completed (e.g., lunches are made, snacks are packed, back packs are organized, lunch money is available, spare clothing is prepared).

Use Transitional Signals and Ease your Child through a Routine. Plan to alert your child about transitions (e.g., give your child an advanced warning that they will have to get out of bed), use age-appropriate and playful songs to support routines, and use signaling devices (e.g., a “Time Timer”, a sand dial, a digital watch, an Amco Color Alert Timer) to notify your child about time. Avoid abrupt and sudden shifts during the flow of a transition.

Optimize Behavioral Regulation. Plan to engage your child in soothing routines to optimize their behavioral regulation before entering the school. Plan to have a gentle “good-bye” ritual and know that what happens at home, or in the car or bus on the way to school, will certainly set the tone for the day.


Dr. Michael J. Cameron, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (Charter Certificant 1-00-0010) is The Chief Clinical Officer for Pacific Child and Family Associates (PCFA) and experienced in the area of behavioral medicine, behavioral health assessment, intervention for diverse populations, and higher education. Prior to joining PCFA, Dr. Cameron was a tenured Associate Professor and the Founding Chair of the Department of Behavior Analysis at Simmons College. Dr. Cameron earned a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Northeastern University.  For more information, please visit

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