It’s no secret that going back to school can be tough for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for children with autism. The new environment can be overwhelming, and the change in routine can be tough to adjust to, especially for kids on the spectrum.
It’s important that you as their parents do your best to help make the transition as painless as possible – and we’re here to help.
Going back to school after spending the summer having fun and relaxing is tough for every child, neurotypical and autistic alike. The changes that they have to deal with once school starts back can trigger meltdowns in any child, but they can be especially upsetting to autistic kids.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common back-to-school struggles that kids face, and why these can be extra stressful to children on the spectrum.
1. Getting Into a New Routine
This is the single most upsetting part for most kids. After two months of having barely any structure outside of the television schedule or the hours of the day, being thrown head first into a brand new, extremely different routine can be overwhelming.
The sudden, complete change in routine is even harder for kids with autism, whose brains are wired to detect and enjoy patterns and familiar routines. It can feel like a total and complete upheaval to them, similar to if an adult were to suddenly move to another city with no resources and completely against their will.
The new routine can feel like a prison and a punishment to all kids – especially when they are too young to understand why school is necessary. Children with autism experience that feeling at a heightened level, and can be easily upset because of this.
2. Settling Down After the Summer Months
Going from spending every day at home with everything they could ever want or need, to spending 8 hours a day in a strange place with strange people is a very upsetting experience for many kids on the spectrum. The amount of new stimuli and new expectations can easily get overwhelming, which can trigger meltdowns even in neurotypical kids.
What can also be upsetting to kids is the fact that they are no longer able to spend a lot of time outside or playing games or watching TV. Giving up all those ways that they may have used as tools to help regulate their emotions can leave kids feeling helpless and vulnerable.
3. New Teacher, New Students, New Surroundings
We’ve all experienced the fear that comes with meeting new people and going new places. Think back to your first day of work or your first day at college – not knowing anyone and not even knowing your way around whatever setting you have found yourself in, can be overwhelming even to adults.
For kids, it’s far worse.
Often, children with autism find themselves getting attached to the teacher they have in one school year, only to have that person yanked away and replaced with a new adult which they have to learn to trust all over again. Combine that with a possible change in friendship circles, and you have a recipe for emotional turmoil.
Even the new surroundings can contribute to that sensation of total loss and fear that kids can feel that first week or two of school.
4. Sensory Overload
One of the main things that children on the autism spectrum struggle with is sensory processing disorder. This means that their brains have a harder time filtering out certain stimuli, and as a result, they can get overwhelmed very easily.
The first few days of school can be particularly overwhelming for autistic children. They’re in a new environment with new people and new sounds, and it can all be too much for their brains to handle, as even neurotypical children can struggle in the early days of a new school year.
5. Hard Time Staying Still
One of the most common issues that kids with autism face is an inability to sit still for long periods of time. This can make it hard for them to stay focused during class and pay attention to the teacher. It can also be disruptive to other students if they are constantly moving around or making noise.
Children with autism may also stim, which is a repetitive movement that they do to soothe themselves, such as rocking back and forth or flapping their hands. Being unable to do this freely can make the entire process of going back to school even more upsetting than it might have been otherwise.
Tips to Help Your Child with Autism Adjust to School
The start of a new school year can be an exciting time for many children. But, for children with autism, as we’ve discussed, it can also be a time of anxiety and stress.
If your child is starting school or transitioning to a new school, here are some tips to help them adjust and make the most of their educational experience:
1. Introduce Them to Staff
If possible, try to introduce your child to their new teachers before the first day of school. By doing this, your child will have at least one or two familiar faces to look to in an otherwise unfamiliar environment, which will help them settle in a little easier.
You can also ask the school if they can provide you with a tour of the facilities so that your child can get comfortable with their new surroundings. If they know where to go before the school year even starts, they will feel more confident and less lost and scared, which is always a good thing.
2. Let Them Ask Questions
Starting school (or transitioning to a new school) can be overwhelming for any child. But, for children with autism, it can be especially so.
To help with this, be sure to:
- Give your child plenty of opportunities to ask questions about their upcoming school experience.
- Sit down with them in the weeks leading up to school restarting to make sure they understand everything that will be happening.
- Ask questions about what they want or what they are worried about so that you can best prepare them for the upcoming transition.
The more your child knows about what to expect, the easier it will be for them to handle the change.
3. Do School Work With Them During the Summer
One of the best ways to help your child with autism adjust to school is to do some school work with them during the summer. This can help them get used to a routine and start to understand what will be expected of them when they start classes. Plus, it might give them a greater understanding of school topics, and help them feel more confident in classes.
Doing school work over the summer is also a great opportunity for you to bond with your child and help them feel more comfortable with the idea of going to school. If they know that working with you is easy, they are more likely to feel like they have a lifeline if they ever have homework that they don’t understand or are struggling with.
4. Start Explaining Their New Schedule a Few Days Before School Starts
If your child is used to staying home with you or attending a special needs school, the start of the new school year may be a big change for them. Help them prepare by explaining their new schedule a few days in advance. Show them pictures of their new classroom, their teacher, and their classmates.
As mentioned previously, see if you can take a tour of the school together so they can see what their new environment will be like. You can even walk them through their class schedule a few times if they will be changing rooms so that they know where to go, and can feel confident that they won’t get too lost when classes actually start.
5. Help Them Transition With Things That are Familiar
One way to help your child feel more comfortable with the idea of going back to school is to incorporate things that are familiar to them into their routine:
- If they have a favorite toy or blanket, allow them to bring it with them to school.
- Packing their lunch with their favorite foods.
- Let them pick out their own clothes to wear on the first day.
Giving them some amount of control over what they bring or what they wear will make the change feel less scary, as they will feel less out of control by being able to make some decisions about the day for themselves.
6. Set Up Playdates With Classmates Over the Summer
If your child is attending a new school, set up some play dates with their future classmates over the summer. This will help them feel more comfortable and familiar with their peers before the first day of school. If your child is shy or has difficulty socializing, you can also invite the parents of their future classmates over for a play date so that they can get to know each other better.
Having the play date in a locale where your child is comfortable – at home or perhaps at their favorite park – can help make this experience less stressful as well. If the kids you’re having over are not already their friends, a play date with new people can also be scary, so it’s important that you give them as many familiar things to hold onto as you can.
7. Have School Remain Positive
Where possible, keep the focus on school being a positive experience. This might mean:
- Attending open houses and orientations together,
- Meeting the teacher beforehand, or
- Touring the school ahead of time.
If your child is anxious about starting school, having a positive attitude yourself can be helpful in setting the tone.
Try to make school work feel fun, and talk about school positively whenever possible. Maybe work out a daily or weekly treat for your child to help them feel like they’re accomplishing something every day and week that they make it through. It can help them associate school with something they like, and make the process a bit more fun.
8. Continuously Work on Social Skills
One of the best things you can do to help your child adjust to school is to work on their social skills. This includes:
- Teaching them how to communicate with others,
- Guiding them in how to make friends, and
- Explaining how to navigate certain social situations.
If they have a script or expectation for how each situation might go, they will feel more in control and less anxious.
There are many resources available to help with this, including books, websites, and social skills groups.
9. Walk Through Your Child’s Anxieties
If your child is feeling anxious about starting school, talk to them about their specific concerns. Is it the new environment? Being around other kids? Not knowing what to expect?
Once you identify their worries, you can help ease their anxiety by walking through each one and providing reassurance. For example, if they’re worried about making friends, you can tell them about the other kids in their class and how they’ll all be learning together.
Being open with your child will not only help reassure them before classes start, but remind them that you are a safe space and that they can come to you with any anxieties they have, even after school starts.
10. Get a Good Night’s Rest and Have a Stress Free Morning
A good night’s sleep is important for everyone, but it’s especially crucial for kids with autism. Make sure your child is getting enough rest by establishing a bedtime routine and sticking to it as much as possible. The night before school should be as relaxing as you can make it, because your child is sure to be nervous about the next day.
In the morning, avoid anything that could add unnecessary stress to your child’s day, such as rushing around or having a lot of loud noise. Instead, create a calm environment for them to get ready. Make them their favorite breakfast, help them get dressed in their favorite outfit, and let them know how much you love them.
Reassure them that they’re going to do great, and that you’ll see them after school with their favorite snacks. You might also consider making them their favorite dinner that night to help make the entire first day as enjoyable an experience as possible.
Changes in routine can cause a lot of anxiety in any child, but for children with autism, this experience can be significantly worse. It’s important to remain calm and loving, and be your child’s reliable source of stability and comfort.
By following the tips listed in this article, you can help your child make this transition as smoothly as possible. They may still struggle at times, but making sure that they feel confident and secure in what to expect from their school experience can help significantly reduce their stress levels. Reduced stress levels mean that your child will be less likely to be overwhelmed enough to need to regulate through a meltdown.
Overall, you need to be kind, be supportive, and make sure your child feels as comfortable with the upcoming transition as they can.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in Indiana, New Jersey, or New York, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.