Here's the thing. Right about now--as in, the end of July/ first week of August, I have a number of discussions with parents who are questioning the validity of the autism diagnosis. 'He's been so great. I am just not seeing any challenges at all."
Well--yeah! School. Is. Out.
School is the single biggest source of anxiety for the children I know, love, or work with on the spectrum. The speed and the volume of the curriculum, the sensory and the social demands, well...they just exceed their capacity to cope. Every single day is full of fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and negative self-talk.
Enter the summer holiday and exit school-related anxiety and the behaviours that this can manifest. This is the time of the year when parents tell me they can 'no longer see the autism' (which always makes me giggle). Autism is just a way of learning and experiencing the physical world. How can you see that????
Anyhoo--here's the good news: There is so much information these days on how to support children on the spectrum in a classroom setting. We should all expect our children to be supported in physical environments that match their sensory tolerances and allow them to be taught in ways that align with their learning strengths and needs.
Okay. Before you tell me I should get my head out of the clouds (or worse), I assure you I am firmly planted in the reality of this situation given that I am immersed in this field 24/7.
I know that many of our children are well supported; also, many are not. At all. Full autism understanding and acceptance of our differences is still a work in progress.
...and so, it is not entirely surprising that we see an increase in autism-related behaviours and features during school: 10 months they are highly anxious, reject, alienated, poorly supported, and feeling less capable than their peers.
And not surprising that when these anxiety-causing issues go away in the summer, our child appears to have less stereotyped autism mannerism, interactions, and behaviour.
If you and your child's school can help him or her to feel safe, valued, and supported in school, my guess is that many of you will see less of those difficult issues arising during the academic year as well. Autism itself if not the problem. It is the lack of true understanding of the right kinds of supports, approaches, and curriculum that our children require.
As we all work for system changes, we do our best as parents to set our children up to feel ready and able to return to school.
Many parents of children on the spectrum get increasingly anxious as the new school year approaches. Of course we do! Every year is a crapshoot. Will this teacher understand, embrace, and follow the IEP, take time to hear what parents have to say, approach the child with respect and consideration of the intelligence and gifts they possess?
Will the teacher be overworked, under-supported, or worse (and thankfully, less common): unwilling to take the time to understand what the child needs and how to provide it?
We hope for the best every year. It should not be that way. Every autistic child should get everything they need every year and from every teacher--and those supports and accommodations should not depend on how the school board decides to spend its budget.
I am a big fan a teachers. Good ones. Most are good. Good does not mean all-knowing...it means open-minded, curious, and willing to learn how extraordinary students experience the classroom and how they need to be taught.
Here's wishing all of you the gold standard in the school system: kind, creative, open-minded teachers who like your kid and respect you.
...and to help with a bit of that anxiety, here are some of my favourite back-to-school tips:
1. GET BACK INTO YOUR SCHOOL YEAR SLEEP SCHEDULE
I get it: it’s often a relief to parents and caregiver when the hectic morning routines of the school year come to an end. The temptation is great to let your child sleep in –and for you to enjoy more relaxed mornings. Caution: that could backfire for you as you try to transition into a routine in September.
For children with ASD, it is a great idea to keep sleep and wake schedules consistent throughout the year. While we need to teach them resilience and that life sometimes brings about unexpected changes, the more we are able to support a regular sleep routine, the more successful your start-of-school routine may be.
2. MAKE WEEKDAY TRIPS TO THE SCHOOL PLAYGROUND.
This will serve two purposes. First, your child gets back into the routine of walking or driving to the school building. However, there’s a second very significant reason this is so important: for many of our children: school is not their favourite place to be. The academic, social and sensory experience can be so overwhelming it leaves them in a state of heightened anxiety.
Children who experience school in this way may become anxious being anywhere near the place. You can work to make the school property less intimidating by associating new, happy memories and experiences with school. How?
The ideas are endless. How about having a picnic in the school playground? Let him or her bring a favourite friend, relative, or canine companion. There, they can chase a ball, toss water balloons, play on the slide and swings and just have a blast. If your child isn't so energetic, get his or her favourite movie, bring the iPad, some popcorn and blanket and watch Frozen for the 200th time! You're only limited by your imagination and your child's preferences.
3. GET INTO THE SCHOOL BEFORE THE YEAR STARTS TO INTRODUCE YOUR CHILD TO THE TEACHER
I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: if your child can meet his or her new teacher before the first day, it’s a great way to start a positive relationship between the two. The three of you can choose his desk, prepare his name tag...anything to begin feeling part of the classroom ‘community’.
I also encourage families to find ways to instantly make a positive connection with the new teacher. How about this: find out what the teacher’s favourite candy is, then allow your child to buy some and give it to him or her as a way of saying, ‘Hello’. It's a disarming introduction.
By contrast, our children’s diagnostic assessment reports and Individual Education Plans can make them seem overwhelming to a teacher. Opting to have your little moppet give a bag of Jujubes may be a more effective way of having staff see your son or daughter as a child first and foremost.
Though teachers are not required to be in school before the first day, many are. Just ask office staff if they can help you make this very important introduction by letting you know if and when the teacher will be setting up the classroom.
4. GET BACK INTO THE SCHOOL ROUTINE AT HOME
At least two weeks before school starts, begin your routine; dinner, bath, shower should occur on a school night schedule; lay out clothing the night before; after-school activities such as quiet time or iPad time should begin and end as they will once school starts.
5. EVEN IF YOU ARE NOT ABLE TO MEET WITH THE TEACHER, FIND OUT WHERE THE CLASSROOM WILL BE LOCATED!
Our children can worry about getting lost in the school, or of not being able to find a washroom with their classroom now in a different part of the building. Get permission from your school administration to show your child where the washroom, office, library, lunchroom, gym, playground are in relation to that new classroom. Some children will need to walk the distance from the classroom to the destination several times before they are confident they’ll remember it when needed. Find a way to make it fun!
6. MAKE A PLAN FOR YOUR CHILD TO GET INTO THE CLASSROOM THE FIRST DAY BEFORE THE OTHER CHILDREN OR AT THE SAME TIME AS THE OTHER CHILDREN.
Why am I mentioning this? Because so many children with ASD cannot tolerate entering a social situation AFTER it has already begun.
It makes them very anxious to have all eyes on them—just the thought of people looking at them as they enter an environment is unbearable. They don't want to step into a room with seats already full of classmates.
This aversion to entering ongoing social situations is one reason why it is so essential that our children have help getting ready for recess: motor skill challenges make them slow getting out the door. Once their classmates are already out and in their little cliques, our children are even more isolated.
Anyhoo, worry about how they will actually arrive to class the first day can cause significant worry and anxiety for many kids. Make a plan. If your child is very young, arrange to pass him onto the teacher just before the bell, or have a friend or mature, on-task student take him in when everyone else is summoned by the first bell.
7. GET TO KNOW ONE OR TWO OF THE OTHER CHILDREN IN HIS CLASS—INVITE THEM TO A BACK-TO-SCHOOL FUN DAY AT THE PLAYGROUND
Our children often benefit from facilitated playdates. That means that we hand-pick potential playmates, hang around while they are socializing, and gently redirect if we see our child needs it. We can also make our homes the most fun ever! If I had all the money I spent on movie and game rentals—and pizza—I could retire. Good news was that my house was where the kids wanted to hang out, and twenty years later, Daniel still has a couple of amazing friends thanks to this ‘facilitated’ play.
8. DON’T GET THEM HYPED UP.
In the weeks leading up to back-to-school, there’s lots of talk about the big day. New clothes, new supplies, and the threat or promise of more difficult social and academic expectation can make anxiety spiral out of control for children with ASD. Try keeping it low key, as in, 'It’s cool moving from moving to another grade. We get you new clothes if you want them...if you don’t (or don’t need them), fine.'
Stay calm, and don't get caught up in a whirlwind of activity to prepare for the 'big day'. If you’re anxious, I promise you they’ll pick up on it. Don’t react to unexpected changes with alarm (like...his new teacher called to say she broke her leg and now you don’t know who his teacher will be, for example). Try: ‘Mrs. Smith broke her leg and will be back at school when it feels better. The school said they are going to find a really nice teacher to replace her for a while.’ I know, I know. This is no magic solution, but I guarantee you’ll get a better reaction that if you freak out.
9. ON THAT NOTE--FIND WAYS TO MANAGE YOUR OWN ANXIETY
Children with ASD are finely tuned to the emotions and reactions of their parents. Anecdotally, it is simply wrong to say that children with Asperger’s/ASD lack empathy. They may not know how to express it...or may feel uncomfortable if overwhelmed by grief, fear, happiness or confusion...but they certainly DO feel deeply.
Think of it this way: one of the best indicators of a successful school year is a calm, organized, caring teacher who doesn’t flip out when something unexpected happens. This is what we want for our children—a flexible, open-minded teacher with heart.
This is what we want in a teacher--and this is what we must be ourselves.
If we can stop raising our voices, stop being catastrophic if something changes unexpectedly, and put the brakes on our own negative self-talk, it’ll do wonders for our children. This is a tall order, but it can make the world of difference.
Investigate Mindfulness classes. Join a gym. Get a massage. Find time away from your child on scheduled date nights or a night out with friends. Do what it takes to be rational, controlled...an oasis of calm. No. I'm not saying to break open the wine or whisky. I'm serious here. Be the change you want to see in your child.
10. ARRANGE IN ADVANCE WHERE YOU WILL MEET YOUR CHILD AFTER SCHOOL
Once into a new classroom, a young student may be worried he/she won’t find you when the school day is over. Practice the walk from the classroom to your meeting spot the week before school starts. School administration is often supportive of this kind of planning to prevent problems. Remember also to always have and teach a 'Plan B'. What will your child do if Mommy or Daddy is late? Again, practice walking to the office—often the place you want your child to wait if you are late—and let office staff in on your plan. Together, you, your child and staff can pick a seating area where he can comfortably wait for your arrival.
Best of luck to you and your precious children as the academic year begins.