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Autistic Adults Share What Could Have Helped Them Transition Back to School

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This weekend we got a letter from school letting us know who my daughter’s teacher will be this school year. We also got a gift card from dear friends to help with school supplies. The back-to-school ball is rolling, and there is no turning back.

While I had great intentions to keep routines this summer, I confess our routines consist of late nights, movies, video games and snacks. We have been pretty laid back, letting the kids do whatever they want for the most part.

Getting back to a routine will be challenging, especially for kids who thrive with routine and who struggle with change. What are the new expectations? Who is the new teacher? What about the lights in the classroom? The school bell and school drills? How does it work to go from the calmness and flexibility of home to the busyness and requirements of school?

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the experts are the adults who have “been there” as kids. So we reached out to the autistic adults, many of whom found the back-to-school transition challenging, and asked, “What advice would you give to parents when it comes to helping their kids transition back to school? What was helpful for you? What did you need?”

These were their insightful and helpful responses:

1. “What would have helped me are ‘happy hours.’ A fixed period of time every day when everything is set up for the child’s special way of living. Providing happy hours still helps me to survive the rest of the day. This part of the day (sometimes not more than half an hour) is a bit of inner paradise where and when everything is OK and I’m ‘home.’ Now I have to ensure happy hours to myself but I think a child would really appreciate it and could recover from the daily mental and emotional ‘injuries’ suffered during the day. Find out what your child would like and set up the scene.” — Major V.

2. “When it comes to transitioning your kid back to school, I recommend that you help get your kid mentally and physically prepared for school since living a structured life is so important for those on the spectrum. What was helpful for me when I had to go back to school was going back to the sleep schedule I had before when I was in school and getting really prepared for it by going school shopping and stuff, also by knowing my schedule and stuff ahead of time, doing this helped me be prepared to go back to school. Parents should keep in mind that kids with ASD [may] process things slower and sudden change [can] cause anxiety so the best thing to do is get them prepared in advance so they don’t feel like it’s unexpected.” — Brookelyn R.

3. “Practicing a school routine you’ve been using is something I’ve definitely recommend. I’d also try talking to them about what grade they’re heading into. My school days schedules have changed over my years in school. What my parents did for me when I went to junior high and high school for the first time is call the school to set up a private orientation without the other students. I may have had a tough high school life, but they were accommodating about that at the very least. Your kid [may] still have to attend the one with the other students but a private one [can] give them a better understanding of junior high and high school. Those are some of my suggestions.” — Louis S.

4. “Remember that your child (of any age — I am an adult with ASD working in a special school and it will be exactly the same for me come September) will be utterly exhausted at the end of the day. For quite a lot of days. If they have held it together all day and even if they get benefit from being back in the routine of school, there will be change, and a lot more social interaction (of the type that really requires their intense hard work) than they have had for a while. They will likely need all evening to regulate even if it’s not obvious. Whatever helps your child feel safe and calm, facilitate that — whether it is chilling in front of the TV, being occupied with familiar tasks or bouncing on a trampoline. You know what it is for your child (and if you don’t, just give them space, their body will soon find what it needs), give them space to get what they need. They may or may not want you involved and that’s OK.” — Jayne J.

5. “What really helped me was to actually go to the school on ‘back-to-school’ nights and physically walk through my schedule. I would walk from class to class in the order listed on my schedule to get the route stuck in my head. Being around all the people also helped me get my brain used to the crowds in the hallways again. I did this every year from seventh to 12th grade and it really helped!” — Alix J.

6. “Do what you can to avoid unpredictable things before the school day starts. Once the day starts with a bump, it snowballs. A bump can be any variance in routine, surprise, or unmet expectations.” — Anj M.

7. “Start building them up to going back to school the week before. Talk about it, drive past school. Walk past school. Got up and do the morning routine etc… just means the first day back isn’t such a shock that way.” — Jemma G.

8. “Help your child set up a routine that is reasonable and let the predictability of the routine be a comfort. Reinforce it often.” — Jim B.

9. “If it’s a new school, walking through the schedule. Starting the school bedtime and morning routine. The first days/weeks of school are tiring.” — Kate N.

10. “Supply endless confidence and encouragement, no matter what happens, stay positive. They can feel love too.” — Jenean C.

11. “1. Take them to the school they will be attending a few weeks in advance. 2. Start changing their routine back to school schedule (sleeping routine). 3. Show them a picture of their teacher. 4. If they are transitioning to middle school and haven’t had to switch classes before, or have a new schedule, take them through it at the school, showing them through it. 5. Show them a ‘safe spot and teacher’ so that if they are lost or begin to get overwhelmed/meltdown, they can go to this person (receptionist, principal, guidance teacher). 6. Buy them sensory friendly clothes. 7. Try showers in the evening, because morning showers can be overwhelming. 8. Start talking to them about the transition so you can mentally prepare them for it. Keep in mind that transition is hard, it’s not going to be easy. We are trying. We never ‘want’ to have meltdowns. That our brains process things differently. Watch out for bullying because the signs may not be obvious. It’s hard to say we are being bullied, but it needs to be dealt with.” — Rylander V.

12. “Lots of empathy, patience, and extra time with their special interest after school!” — Jenn C.

13. “Walk the route to school a few times over the holidays so they see the school and stay familiar. A transition book with photos of the classroom, new teachers, where they eat lunch etc. Knowing exactly where they will be sitting in the classroom and who with. Knowing the class timetable for each day. Have the uniform and shoes, bags etc. hanging around beforehand so they get used to them before even wearing/using them. If possible, try and keep in contact with at least one child from the class over the summer, this will ease the anxiety of walking in on the first day. There is so much, it can be tough.” — I’ve Been Autistic All Along

Are you an autistic adult? What would you add?

Getty image by monkeybusinessimages

Originally published: August 7, 2018
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