By Jasmine Dyoco
Going back to school can be exciting and fun for some kids, but for others, it can cause anxiety and stress. It’s normal to be nervous about the unknown. New teachers, classmates, schedules, classrooms, and subjects can cause the jitters in just about anyone. But for children and teens on the autism spectrum, the fear of the unknown can be augmented by their developmental disability.
Kids with autism can be anxious and socially withdrawn, as well as have impaired communication skills, a narrow range of interests, and difficulty with change. All of these factors have an effect on adapting to a new environment and life situation, which, in this case, is a new school year. As you prepare your child with ASD for school, here are some tips to quell their anxiety.
Meet the teacher and aide before school starts
Before the school year begins, there are a few things you can do to prepare your child. Make a visit to the school and the teacher before the first day so your child can become familiar with a face and the place before jumping into a strange situation. If your child moves to different classrooms during the day, visit each class individually. Ask the teacher where your child will sit so he can know what to expect. If your child has a paraprofessional that will be working with them, meet that person as well. Give them an overview of your child’s unique needs. It’s as important to prepare the teacher as the child.
Check out the Environment of the School
Many autistic children have problems with the smells of the cafeteria or loud bathrooms. Make sure you list the accommodations your child may need before he enters school so that meltdowns will be minimized. Talk to the teacher about things that might cause meltdowns, such as the school bell or the fire alarm. Ask the teacher if there is a quiet place the child can go if overwhelmed.
Don’t overwhelm them
Ease them back into a schedule and workload. Since transitions can be difficult for kids with autism, try not to overwhelm them with everything at once. Work with the teacher beforehand to start preparing your child for new classes and reading material, as well prepping the teacher for your child’s unique needs. If your child is not in a special education program, he may have trouble keeping up with an onslaught of new material at the beginning of the semester. Make sure his teachers are aware of this before they hand out assignments that can feel like an avalanche of material.
Make checklists and create social stories
Develop an organizational structure that will make back-to-school exciting, not overwhelming. Let your child make his own checklist of items that he needs for school, a lunch menu and schedule that he can develop on his own, and a music playlist to get him started in the morning. Visual checklists often work well as do social stories. Develop a ritual for packing school bags and doing homework each day. Many kids with autism are inclined towards repetitive and ritualistic behavior that allows them to comfort themselves, so allowing him the opportunity to create and adhere to routines can be beneficial. There are many apps that have free social stories your child can use for going back to school.
Teach rules of the school
It’s important that children know the rules for the playground, the classroom, the cafeteria, and if they ride the bus – what to expect. There are many social stories that can be used to prepare your child for each new experience. Talk to the teacher about rules in her class.
Give your child comfort items to make it easier to deal with their surroundings. Fidget items, stuffed toys, and comfort blankets can help with calming nerves and dealing with stressful situations. If you have a younger child who will be playing online games or doing online exercises for school, a good set of headphones is a solid back-to-school investment. Older children or teens who listen to music while doing homework could also benefit from this handy tool. Many headphones are inexpensive, and a decent pair can be found for less than $100.
Help them start their days with positivity. How about a light exercise program to start the day? Do family yoga or stretches in the morning. If you have a pool, go for a light swim. Take the dog for a walk together. Exercise energizes the body and boosts confidence so your child can be ready for school. Play invigorating or relaxing music while you do these things.
Breakfast is important
Eat a healthy, well-rounded breakfast together. Have your child say daily affirmations, and make sure to reaffirm these things to him as well. He needs to hear it from you as much as from himself. Your child can do all these things alone, but doing them together as a family helps reinforce social interaction and familial support. Research suggests that children whose parents are invested in their academics tend to have greater success in school.
After school begins meet with the teacher and aides
Make sure your child is on the right track by having regular meetings with the teacher and the paraprofessionals who assists your child. Have a communication book that goes back and forth to the school so that you can know how your child’s day is each day. Be on top of any concerns or problems.
Be sensitive to your child’s emotions at home
Learning a new routine, rules, and having good behavior all day can be extremely stressful for an autistic child. Be sensitive to your child and their needs. Many times children on the autism spectrum will keep it together at school and will have meltdowns at home. Sometimes its difficult to know what may be bothering them at school. After school begins, visit the school during class hours to see what is happening.
School doesn’t need to be a scary place for an autistic child. It also doesn’t need to be a scary place for parents who are about to send their children off on their own. It might take a while to get comfortable, but each day will get better. Being prepared can make the difference between forcing your child into an unpredictable environment and easing him into an exciting situation.
Jasmine Dyoco loves crossword puzzles and audio books, learning (anything!) and fencing. She works with Educatorlabs to curate scholastic information.
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