Having spent an extended period in a familiar environment away from the hustle and bustle of everyday school life, the sudden upcoming change in circumstances can spark many questions, anxieties and fears for children with autism.
They might be unsure about what to expect at school, who they're going to sit next to in class, or what the new version of school might look like. They may also be worried about catching Coronavirus, or simply fearful of leaving their family.
At the same time, it's completely normal for parents to have their own concerns about leaving their child in the care of others. So much feels unpredictable at the moment. And while it's true that many things remain outside your control, there are strategies you can use to help your child head back into the classroom while easing your own anxieties.
There’s a lot that can be prepared ahead of time to help reduce sources of anxiety for your child. Even seemingly small things like practising the school run or using visual stories to communicate the new routine can go a long way towards removing the unpredictability from the transition back to school.
At the same time, it’s important to emphasise that not everything can be planned for. Alarms can be slept through, buses can be late, and school schedules might change. Try to help your child to recognise that uncertainty is part of life and add room for flexibility into your plans in advance.
As a parent, being aware of your own anxiety is also important. Try to keep a calm tone of voice and convey empathy by recognising your child’s anxiety and frustration, as Ann explains, “Try to stay calm and methodical. and have confidence that everything will be OK...even if it isn’t!”
When it comes to making new friends, Marianna says the most important thing is to help your child learn how to choose appropriate friends. Recognising groups of people with similar interests to theirs is a great place to start and will give your child an opportunity to build lasting friendships that can continue outside of school hours as well.
If your child is worried about making new friends or that they might not still have their friends when they return to school, the key is to start by listening to your child’s concerns and understand where they are rooted.
Sometimes it might be related to a general anxiety around social interactions, but it might also be the result of a genuine feeling of disconnection if your child hasn’t seen their friends for a long time.
From verbal teasing and negative feedback to cyberbullying and threatening behaviour, bullying can take many forms and each form will require a different approach. Therefore, the first step is to try and understand exactly what has been happening, before considering what might be the suitable response.
Some children might be motivated to develop skills and strategies to deal with bullying themselves, particularly if during lockdown they’ve built an increased resilience. But for others, this idea can be overwhelming and may even be a cause of anxiety in itself.
Marianna says that one potential benefit of lockdown is that it might have acted as a 'laying low' period. Laying low is one of the first recommended strategies for dealing with teasing, as it helps the child avoid the attention of the teaser and give them the strong reaction they’re after.
Sadly, cyberbullying appears to have risen during the lockdown as children spend more time unsupervised online. If this is the case with your child, take evidence in the form of screenshots and report these to both the school and the social media platform so that the bullying can be thoroughly shut down.
In any case, it’s always essential to make sure your child’s school is aware of the problem so that it can be properly addressed. Even if your child is motivated to develop strategies to deal with bullying, the school must play its role so that the responsibility of resolving the issue is not placed on the victim.
“The main way to deal with separation anxiety is with graded exposure,” Ann says. “Start by setting small goals at first, like spending a few minutes in a different room from your child.”
The goal here is to build resilience. It’s important not to give too much reassurance. This can be difficult if your child is worried about where you’re going or how long you’ll be. But if you find yourself answering the same questions again and again, it could be that reassurance is actually maintaining their anxiety.
Remember to be patient here. Reward each success, increase the goals incrementally and think creatively about how you can help your child to deal with their specific concerns around separation. Separation anxiety can be a major challenge at the best of times. Prolonged time at home this year may have increased this.
This can be just as beneficial to you as to your child. We understand how difficult it can be to leave your child in the care of others. Working to build your child’s resilience through graded exposure can do a lot for helping your own peace of mind when you’re apart.
A loss of confidence, whether academically or generally, is a common challenge in any transition back to school, especially after our children have spent so much time at home away from their friends and teachers.
It’s important to remind your child that they're not alone in feeling this, explains Ann. “The key thing is to help children understand that expectations are going to be different. They’re not going to be in trouble. Nobody’s going to tell them off if they can’t remember what they did nine months ago.”
At the same time, reassuring yourself that your child will have their school’s full support can help your own concerns. Awareness of mental wellbeing and pastoral care in schools is higher than ever this year, and recovery curriculums are being put in place to help all children get back to where they were.