I still vividly recall the anxiety I felt years ago when the new school year was fast approaching for my three sons, one of whom has autism. Getting three children ready for school could create a lot anxiety, but many years have passed, and they’re now all adults.
Life has changed a lot since then. But some things may never change for a child with autism who may feel anxiety and uncertainty about a new school year.
Through trial and error and life experience, I discovered simple ways that eased my autistic son’s adaptation to change. I practiced these throughout the years and still implement these as a mom and a teacher. I offer no guarantees, only that these ideas may ease your child’s willingness and adaptation on the first day of school and beyond. They’re worth trying.
1. Create ease and predictability.
Begin to ease your child’s fear by taking your child on a field trip to school about one or two weeks before the first day. Introduce your child to her teacher and other school staff. Take photos of everything: the school lunch room, the hallways, locker, the classroom, the bathrooms, the cafeteria, including the lunch line, and tables. This will enhance your child’s familiarity and predictability within the school setting.
If your child resists going to the school for a visit, break it down even more. Drive by the school and take a picture. Try again another day by walking into the school. Oftentimes, the drive by the school is the best first introduction.
2. Offer your child an activity.
At home, arrange the school field trip photos into a scrapbook or on a large poster. Review with ease all the photos with your child.
3. Write a self emotional awareness (SEA) story.
Write a story with your child about the school visit or imagine the first day of school. Start with lower emotions, such as doubt and worry, and work up to higher emotions, such as ease and enjoyment. Imagine the best and write about general things and emotions that may happen on the first day of school.
I offer this example:
“Once upon a time, Sarah was afraid to go to the new school. Every day she worried about the new school. One day, her mother said, “Sarah let’s visit your new school.” Sarah finds safety with Millie, her favorite dinosaur toy so she brought Millie with her. Sarah and Millie, both met her new teacher, Ms. Jordan. Ms. Jordan had a friendly smile and walked Sarah to a table where there was a puzzle with bright colors.
After saying goodbye to Ms. Jordan, Mom walked Sarah to the cafeteria and showed her where she will eat lunch with her class. Mom took lots of pictures. Because Sarah had many pictures to look at, she began to feel at ease. Because she held her new backpack and was able to gently touch her new uniforms, she and Millie began to accept them as new school belongings. Until finally, Sarah felt better about going to school.”
Now you try writing a SEA Story with your child.
4. Create ease for your child by communicating with their teacher.
Ask your child’s teacher to provide you the planned structure of the day and week. Provide that structure of activities in the form of a daily checklist or weekly calendar, so your child can experience ease in knowing what the day may bring.
Talk with your child’s teacher about what your child’s likes and their strengths.
If your child has limited expressive and receptive communication, provide the teacher with a list of their gestures or signing and the intention your child is communicating. Use a system of reliable tools to assist with communication like pictures, etc.
Also include the signs that show your child getting anxious. Offer the teacher a list of strategies that may bring ease to your child. Have the same list taped to the front of their notebook or backpack.
For example, prevent a meltdown by addressing anxiety. Offer the child a brief escape, quiet corner or area where they can cope and regroup. Perhaps offer headphone of relaxing music or a YouTube video to view calm nature scenes with animals. Or suggest assigning a peer student to sit with them to draw or color.
5. Create safety and predictability at home.
Spend extra time with your child one to two weeks prior to the first day of school. Play at the kitchen table, draw, paint, play with modeling clay, while talking about school. Perhaps put on calming music to promote a positive atmosphere.
Make cookies, lemonade and healthy fruit smoothies for enjoyment.
Establish a bedtime ritual or routine. Watch a video or read a short story about forest animals or other interests your child may have.
Establish a morning routine in getting dressed and eating breakfast in a quiet and calm home setting. Many children enjoy a visual image checklist to mark off tasks as they move through their morning.
6. Create predictability and positive expectations after the school day.
Your child may look forward to activities that bring ease and rest, such as watching their favorite TV show or movie while eating snacks.
Build upon positive emotions within home activities before school begins. Surround your child with a general ease and a pace that matches their preferences. Also draw upon physical activities such as walking in a park or riding a bike, since these can wash away stressful emotions.
Read the SEA story you wrote and set it to pictures so your child will see school through a positive lens.
7. Let your child feel your love.
Most importantly, remind your children that they are good. Tell them they are loved and hug them many times a day. Tell them how well they are doing and how proud you are that they are doing their best.
8. Lastly, remember to care for yourself.
When you do your best to help your child adapt to the new school year, you’re their best advocate. Plan some individual time for yourself, so you can find general ease through this process. It’s important to care for yourself, so don’t deny yourself the nourishment, rest and activities you need and enjoy. Caring for yourself is the best care you can provide to your child during the transition to a new school year.
These eight ideas are timeless and can be adapted and applied to a child, adolescent or young adult with autism.
Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images