Preparing A Child with Autism for School After the Pandemic

Children in school with masks, socially distanced


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If a child with autism is school-aged, you're facing an unprecedented challenge as they head back to school after the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are most schools opening with new rules and expectations, but they are also preparing for the possibility of additional COVID-19 spikes.

Some schools are still requiring masks, others are requiring vaccines for those who are eligible, and yet others are continuing to provide at-home or hybrid options for families. With all these uncertainties, a child with autism will need extra help preparing for the fall.

Keys to Success

The most important steps you can take include:

  • Understanding your school district's plans and expectations
  • Providing the child in your care with opportunities to learn about and practice new rules and expectations
  • Communicating with the teachers and therapists of the child in your care before school begins
  • Offering a supportive, predictable home setting
  • Having a plan B just in case the situation changes after the school year begins

Learn What Your District Has Planned

With so much diversity among state, regional, and local educational organizations, it's important for parents and guardians to check into plans for in-person and remote education in your local district. It's also important to remember that plans for students requiring special education may not be the same as plans for students outside of special education.

If information is not available on your district's website, you may wish to call your district's administrative offices to talk directly to the person in charge of special education planning for the school the child in your care is enrolled in. Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • Will daily schedules be the same this year as before the pandemic began? If not, how will they be changed?
  • What is your policy regarding vaccines? (Older children are eligible for vaccines, while younger children will soon have access to approved vaccines.)
  • What is your policy regarding wearing face masks? If the child you are sending to school has trouble wearing a mask or prefers to wear a mask even if it's not required, how will the school manage that situation?
  • What will policies be regarding social distancing, social touching, handwashing, and sanitation in general? How will these policies be taught and implemented with students with disabilities?
  • How will the district manage outbreaks or individual cases of COVID-19 should they occur?
  • Is the district able to provide the same level of one-on-one support that it did before COVID-19? If there are changes, what will they look like?
  • Will the district be providing the same therapies as before the pandemic began? Are there changes in staffing, hours, programs, etc.? Gather any details you can.
  • Will there be changes in the way the district prepares students for or implements standardized testing?

Learn How District Plans Will Impact The Child(ren) In Your Care

Because every person with autism is unique, your district's COVID-era policies may or may not have a significant impact on them. Once you've determined the needs of the child in your care, you'll be ready to help them prepare to be the best student they can be for the school year. Here are some questions you may want to consider:

  • Will my child have an issue with the school's mask-wearing policy?
  • Will my child have trouble with expected behaviors related to social distancing?
  • Does my child have unsanitary behaviors that could become more of an issue in COVID-19 times?
  • Will my child have difficulty navigating new schedules, behavioral rules, or staffing?
  • Will my child have difficulty returning to a typical school schedule after spending some or all of last year in a home environment?
  • How will my child respond to in-person vs. online or parent-based learning?
  • Will my child have increased anxiety related to new rules or to the possibility of contracting COVID-19?

Make a Plan

Once you have a clear idea of what the district has planned and what challenges the child in your care might have, you can make an individualized plan to prepare your child for school—and your school for your child's needs. Some things can be done at home with little to no expertise; others will require the involvement of your district staff.

To Do at Home

Much of a child's readiness and willingness to participate in a challenging school year will depend on you. If you can approach the school year with relative low anxiety, provide meaningful preparation and support, and keep your expectations flexible, a child will follow suit:

  • If you have relaxed your schedule because of pandemic restrictions and summer break, consider reestablishing a typical school-year routine to help everyone get back into the swing of things.
  • Practice any masking, distancing, or hygiene requirements at home and in public places so the child can get used to expected routines and behaviors. While masking may not be required at all schools, studies show masking in school reduces the likelihood of testing COVID-19 positive. Research is clear: advocating for the child in your care to wear their mask at school regardless of protocol will protect your family. If your child has not been wearing a mask but will need one at school, now is the right time to practice wearing a mask for extended periods. Do be sure the child likes and is comfortable in their mask, and that you have plenty of extras available.
  • Create a visual schedule for the child in your care that can be practiced before school starts and implemented after school begins. Visual schedules can be very simple blocks of color or complex calendars, depending on a child's age, abilities, and needs.
  • If a child has concerns or is especially anxious, consult with a doctor and/or therapist about strategies for answering concerns (such as, "Will I be safe at school?") or coping with increased anxiety.
  • Develop a plan to put in place just in case restrictions return and schools are closed down. Are you ready to, if necessary, go back to distance learning? The better prepared you are, the less stress you and your family will experience should an emergency arise.

To Do at School and with School District Staff

Remember that your district's legal obligation is to make school accessible and meaningful for any child. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to ask the district to support your efforts as you prepare a child for this uniquely challenging school year.

By the same token, district staff and teachers are in the same boat as you are—trying to adjust to complex changing conditions. Mutual support, patience, and flexibility are critical to an ongoing positive relationship. It may help to:

  • Take time to familiarize the child in your care with the school, playground, and classrooms again. If the child is moving to a new school, this is especially important. You can ask your district for permission to explore the school with a staff member.
  • Create a video or social story (using words and images to explain a social situation) in order to prepare the child in your care for changes. You can find social stories online or make your own. The ideal social story will incorporate images from a real school day from the child's perspective, starting with at-home preparation for the day and including transportation to and from school.
  • Meet with an educational team to discuss the child's IEP (individualized education plan) before the start of school. Discuss and create accommodations to manage issues that may arise as a result of COVID-related rules.
  • Ask your district to set up a meeting with your child's teacher so your child can meet the teacher and explore the classroom. You can also discuss any expectations your child's teacher has for COVID-related behaviors.
  • If possible, schedule meetings for your child with any new therapists or aides before school starts so your child will know who they are and what they expect.
  • If possible, set up a dry run with your district's transportation system so that your child can experience the vehicle, driver, rules, and route.

Resources for Parents and Their Children with Autism

It's helpful to remember that you and your loved one are not alone. Everyone in the country is coping with the challenges of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of what's to come.

Because of this, many well-regarded autism organizations have created resources parents, guardians, and teachers can download and use in preparation for the new school year. Here are some of the best:

  • Autism Speaks has created a form you can fill out and give to your school to help them prepare for your child's particular needs. They also have a full page of links to useful tools, such as a video about helping your child prepare for disrupted routines.
  • SELPA (Special Education Local Plan Area), which provides tools for students with disabilities in California, has put together a useful packet of resources that includes social stories, parent resources, forms, and more. Not all are specifically related to COVID-19, but many are.
  • The HMEA (Horace Mann Educational Associates) Autism Resource Center in Massachusetts has compiled a huge collection of videos, social stories, and other tools to help parents or guardians prepare their children for school this fall.
  • The Organization for Autism Research offers a large selection of resources and is one of the few institutions to offer resources for adult self-advocates on the autism spectrum.

Summary

A child with autism will face challenges in returning to school after the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn what your school district is planning. You also can help your child prepare at home, including practicing hygiene measures and following a schedule.

At the school, you can meet with your child's team and help familiarize your child with the environment. Many organizations have resources you can take advantage of.

A Word From Verywell

You may need to work harder this fall as the child in your care returns to a complex, new situation. It's important to remember, however, that their most important resource will be a stable home setting. Consistency, patience, and a sense of humor can make everyone's life much easier—and if the child in your care is relaxed and well-supported, you, too, can avoid unnecessary stress.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Amorim R, Catarino S, Miragaia P, Ferreras C, Viana V, Guardiano M. The impact of COVID-19 on children with autism spectrum disorder. Rev Neurol. 2020 Oct 16;71(8):285-291. English, Spanish. doi:10.33588/rn.7108.2020381

  2. Donovan CV, Rose C, Lewis KN, et al. SARS-CoV-2 Incidence in K-12 School Districts with Mask-Required Versus Mask-Optional Policies - Arkansas, August-October 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2022;71(10):384-389. Published 2022 Mar 11. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7110e1

  3. Bellomo TR, Prasad S, Munzer T, Laventhal N. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children with autism spectrum disorders. J Pediatr Rehabil Med. 2020;13(3):349-354. doi:10.3233/PRM-200740

Additional Reading
  • Supporting individuals with autism through uncertain times. Chapel Hill, NC: School of Education and Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hume, K., Waters, V., Sam, A., Steinbrenner, J., Perkins, Y., Dees, B., Tomaszewski, B., Rentschler, L., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N., White, M., Nowell, S., & Odom, S. (2020). https://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/supporting-individuals-autism-through-uncertain-times

  • “How to Cope with Disrupted Family Routines during Covid-19.” Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/news/how-cope-disrupted-family-routines-during-covid-19.

  • “Social Stories for Young and Old ON Covid 19.” HMEA's Autism Resource Central. https://www.autismresourcecentral.org/social-stories-for-young-and-old-on-covid-19/.

  • “Tips for Transitioning Kids on the Autism Spectrum Back to School during the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Tips for Transitioning Kids on the Autism Spectrum Back to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic | Stony Brook Medicine. https://www.stonybrookmedicine.edu/Reicher_COVID_Autism_BackToSchoolTransition.