The Mighty Logo

How to Make the Back-to-School Transition Easier as an Autistic Student

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Starting a new school year is a big transition even at the best of times, especially for those of us on the autism spectrum. This year, it will be especially intense for a lot of students who have spent more or less the last year and a half learning at home.

Now, intense doesn’t mean bad, it just reflects how much will be different and new. At school, there’s a lot of sensory stuff that can’t be controlled as well as at home, new teachers and classes with new expectations, other students with their own personalities and quirks to get used to, maybe a whole new school — which means figuring out where the bathroom is — and of course getting back into the routine of school nights and homework and everything else that goes with schooling at any level from pre-K to Ph.D.

Here’s the deal. All that stuff takes energy to deal with. Our brains use roughly a fifth of all the energy that we take in just to keep our body’s basic functions working properly. Thinking and learning use even more energy. This applies just as much to a new job, a new living situation, a new roommate, child, marriage, separation, business or anything else new in your life. For now, let’s keep with the theme of the new school year.

The brain uses lots of shortcuts to make its life easier. Once it gets used to something, it makes predictions about what will happen next, and uses those predictions to make decisions easier. This is how you know that your math teacher will be understanding if you ask for a day extension, but your English teacher will deduct points, so when you’re running out of time, you do your English assignment first and make up the math one later. But at the beginning of the school year, you don’t know how either teacher will react, so your brain has to work overtime trying to figure out what to do and plan for every contingency (or, you know, worry).

Autistic brains are amazing at this kind of pattern recognition when it comes to highly predictable things, like animal behavior or gaming strategy or mixing paint colors to get just the right hue. However, the subtleties of social interactions among humans are so complex and variable that it often takes us longer to find reliable patterns and form predictions for working with people. That doesn’t mean that we can’t do it, we definitely can, and some of us get really good at it, but it takes a lot more time and energy for us to get used to new people and new social situations enough that we feel like we know what to expect and become comfortable with them.

In the meantime, our brain is sorting through a flood of new information to find patterns and try to make predictions, which uses a lot of energy that we would otherwise have available for friends or chores or hobbies or feeling good or being polite. Which is why the new school year — and any adjustment period — often feels exhausting and you might lose interest in other things for a while, chores might not get done, and you might be more cranky or withdrawn. This is a normal reaction to a new situation, and as you adjust, you will get your energy back. It will get better.

When I was in teacher college, they told us that for the first year or two of teaching, we were going to be too tired for a social life or housework or anything, and then one day, we would finally think, “I could stop at the grocery store on the way home,” and that would be a turning point. We would be able to add things into our lives again.

This turned out to be true for me. I was exhausted for the first couple of years of teaching, and there were many times that I repeated to myself that this was just an adjustment period, it will get better, and that helped enormously in fending off my fear-based reaction that it would always be that hard. It wasn’t. It won’t be. It will get better. As long as there’s not something or someone actually harming you (and if you do suspect something is wrong, please look into it), I promise it will get better.

That doesn’t mean that everything will turn out great just by giving it time, but the energy drain will decrease, so your energy reserves will gradually build up again. That part will get better. And as you get some energy again, you will feel more able to do things to make other parts of your situation better as well. When you have energy, you might remember your calming strategies and use them when things feel overwhelming. Or pull out a fidget instead of going bonkers. Or ask for accommodations when you need them.

But before that can happen, while you’re still in that adjustment period, you are likely to feel tired or irritable or complain a lot or go quiet. Everything may feel like a problem. Like a big deal. Just plain hard. Instead of pushing through, or assuming the worst, how would it feel to honor that adjustment period? What I mean is, can you give yourself permission (psychologically, emotionally) to do less for a while as your brain and body work overtime to adjust? Here are three ways to do that.

One, acknowledge that what you’re going through is reasonable and appropriate and is a sign that your energy is being used for important things.

Two, let your body recharge its energy. For some people, that may mean spending time alone, or sleeping more, or allowing extra time with your special interests, or friends, or play. Find whatever personally recharges your battery.

Three, as much as possible, try to keep away from anything that further drains your energy. Again, that will be different for different people, but it might include not signing up for clubs or events or sports early in the year, or cutting back on household chores for a while, or not pushing yourself to go out on evenings and weekends, or canceling plans with certain people who drain you, etc. You might miss out on some things, but pushing yourself when you don’t have the energy to spare isn’t going to be a good experience. You’ve done that. Am I wrong? And some things can be added in later as you get your energy back.

Which will happen. After a while, new routines and teachers and expectations will become familiar, which means they will take less energy, and there will be energy available for other things again.

Yes, after a while, things will settle down and become a new normal. It will get better. And that will happen faster and more easily when you allow yourself that adjustment period.

Getty image by Prostock-Studio.

Originally published: August 21, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home