It’s back-to-school season, and that means once again, everyone in the family must adjust to a new schedule. While this is hard for most of us, this adjustment can be a big challenge for kids on the autism spectrum — especially after an extended pandemic disruption.
The best advice? Be kind to yourself and your child during this time, says Nikki Griffin, a board-certified behavior analyst with Envision Unlimited, a Chicago-based organization that provides quality services to promote choice, independence and inclusion for those with disabilities and other special needs.
“Give yourself some grace. It’s not going to be easy, and if you know that going into it, you won’t expect perfection from yourself or your child,” Griffin says.
Across neurodevelopmental types, back-to-school time brings heightened anxiety, she says. “Some children will be excited about getting back to see friends, and some will be nervous about the pandemic and won’t be processing information the same way adults do. Understand that your child will have some emotions around back-to-school time.”
How can you spot back-to-school anxiety?
Your child may not share how they are feeling, so be on the lookout for some signs that they are struggling. A significant indicator is mood swings, Griffin says.
“You are the expert on your child, so if you notice your normally happy, bubbly child is withdrawn, or your typically shy child is displaying anger, that’s a good indicator that they are having a hard time,” she explains. She suggests checking in with your child and reaching out to others on your support team.
“Maybe your child has a new classroom, a new teacher, and new classmates. If you have a trusted relationship with their previous teacher, you can reach out and see if that teacher notices your child’s behavior at school,” Griffin says.
At home, if your child is having difficulty sleeping or has a change in eating patterns, these could be signs of struggle with adapting to that new schedule.
Most common adjustment challenges for kids with autism
While every child is unique, transitioning from one activity to another is often a challenge for a child with autism. “Knowing what comes next so they aren’t caught off guard is important for some kids, or they may be challenged by a new classroom, teacher or school,” Griffin says. “Being away from home all day and having to stay in a room where someone tells you when you can use the bathroom, for instance, can be shocking to the system.”
Social worries could also be top of mind for a child with autism. “They may worry about who will be in their class, or if they will feel isolated or experience bullying. We notice this with middle school-aged kids without a solid friend group,” Griffin explains. “Even though it looks like they prefer to be alone, kids with autism do want to reach out and have a social connection. The difficulty of doing this can cause anxiety.”
What looks like avoidance behavior can also be social anxiety in disguise, Griffin says. For example, your child might refuse to get out of bed, get dressed or take a shower. It can also continue as refusal to get on the school bus and sit in their seat.
“If a child knows their routine will get shaken up, their first instinct might be to push back,” she says, adding that a child may be seeking some control over the moment.
Helping your child adjust to a new schedule
For younger children, social stories can help give them exposure to the change before committing to the change, Griffin says. “It’s like a little flipbook with visuals that parents can read with their child. It can pertain to whatever fear the child is having,” she explains. “It’s a little script for the day.”
Older kids can also benefit from a social story, but they might just do well with a visual of their schedule or even just a verbal run-through of the day. “At 8, you’ll have math class, and these are the books and materials you will need. At 12, you’ll go to the cafeteria, and here is where you will sit. At 4, you will get on the bus to come home. That script of what your child is doing today can relieve anxiety,” Griffin says.
Get help from your ABA provider
To support your parental expertise, rely on the resources available to you. Your child’s ABA provider can help you adjust your child’s environment for the best outcomes during back-to-school season. The clinic may have a parent support group or know of a community-based group you can join. Facebook may also have what you need to connect with others who have experienced what you are going through.
Even if your child no longer has ABA therapy, you may still be able to benefit from parent training to help you tweak your home environment or learn how to best respond to your child, Griffin says.
“There are so many resources available to help you and your child and improve your quality of life,” she says. “You are not on an island. Reach out and take advantage of resources to help build your child’s skills.”
Learn more about Envision Unlimited at envisionunlimited.org/autism.