Helping students with autism make the back-to-school transition

"At the end of last summer, our twins – who both have autism – had a terrible time switching back to early wake up and long school days. This year, how can we help them prepare for the transition?"

This week’s “Got Questions?” response comes from autism educator Peter Gerhardt. Dr. Gerhardt is world-renowned for his work with adolescents on the autism spectrum.

The transition from the more laid-back schedule of summer to that of the school year can challenge any student. For those affected by autism, this transition can be particularly difficult. As you’ve noticed, they often struggle with the shift back to an earlier wake up time and the demands of a long school day.

Adjusting sleep time and wake up

Let’s start by addressing the earlier wake-up call. Generally, this can be accomplished through an approach we call “shaping.”  First, consider how much time you need to shift your children’s summer schedule to bring it in line with a school-day schedule.

Let’s say that your kids are now waking at 9 am. But come the first day of school, they need to wake at 6:30 am. You have 2.5 hours you need to shape down. Ideally, you would start this shaping process around a month before school starts. The schedule whould look something like this: 

Week 1:  Wake them a half hour earlier than their typical summer wake-up time. So, in this example, at 8:30 am. It may be helpful to offer a glass of juice or other positive reinforcement for getting out of bed. 

Week 2:  Move wake-up time up another 30 minutes. So now they’re waking up each day at 8 am. Continue offering positive reinforcement – be it a glass of juice or gentle praise – when they get out of bed. If possible, this is a good week to adjust bed time as well. Let’s say 30 minutes earlier when they’ve been going to sleep.

Week 3:  Now we get a little more ambitious. Advance wake-up time by 45 minutes (7:15 am in our example). Continue to provide positive reinforcement – now for both getting out bed and completing the first step in what their school-morning ritual will be. For instance, this step could involve getting dressed before leaving their bedroom – with clothes laid out the night before. Or washing their faces and brushing hair before coming to the breakfast table. If possible, try to maintain 8 hours of sleep by adjusting bedtime earlier – by up to 45 minutes. 

Week 4:  Move wake-up time to within 15 minutes of that for a school-day. So in this case, to 6:45 AM. Provide positive reinforcement for getting out bed and completing the first two steps in their school-morning ritual.  

First week of school:  Wake them up each day at the normal time. Provide positive reinforcement for getting out of bed and completing as many steps in their morning ritual as they have mastered.

Adjusting to school demands

To help transition to the more-demanding school day, I recommend that you talk with your children’s teachers, classroom aides and/or school counselor. Some coordination is definitely in order here. Remember that your children – like most students – will be arriving a little more tired than usual the first week of school. And they may not be in the best of moods.

Ideally, the teacher will try to start the classroom day with preferred activities designed to ease students into the school-day routine. During the first few weeks, I encourage teachers to allow up to half of the school day for short breaks involving physical activity or some other preferred activity – but not napping.  

As a general rule, I recommend against letting students with autism or other developmental disabilities sleep at school – unless, of course, they are ill and waiting for you to pick them up. By staying awake during the school day, they will be better able to fall asleep and stay asleep at night.  

I also encourage teachers to use a visual aid or similar type of activity schedule to help students keep track of their progress through the school day. Without a sense of when something will end, even a brief activity can feel like an eternity for a student with autism. Visual schedules are an excellent way to cue students to the passage of time that leads to the end of the school day. 

I hope these tips are helpful for you and your children. Please let us know how you’re doing in the comment section below or with an email to

Also see these school resources from Autism Speaks:

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