Even after a short break, returning to school can be extremely difficult for autistic children. But after the extended lockdown period, the prospect of going back to the classroom can be particularly challenging, prompting a range of mixed emotions in already uncertain times.
Increased anxiety, heightened worry, and intensified irritability are just a few common emotions that might be made worse by the upcoming change in circumstances.
If your child is worried about going back to school, there are several highly effective strategies that can help. To help us tackle the subject, we spoke to clinical psychologist and researcher Dr Ann Ozsivdjian and Dr Marianna Murin of Autism Spectrum Directions, both experts in understanding and managing the anxiety of autistic children and young people.
The first step is learning how to recognise when your child is experiencing anxiety. Anxiety is far more common in autistic people than in the general population. But for many autistic people, recognising their feelings as anxiety is a challenge in itself and one that can be a major obstacle in managing their emotional wellbeing.
Common signs of anxiety are changes in their baseline behaviour or habits, such as loss of interest in activities, social withdrawal or a change to their eating and sleeping habits. Some of the changes might be more subtle and might not be noticeable until observed over time.
It’s also important to help your child identify their feelings and share them. Talk to them about how they’re feeling as much as possible, always keeping a calm tone of voice and a non-judgemental approach no matter how small their worry might appear. Remember to always be patient as your child might not feel ready to talk at first. When they are ready, the best thing you can do is be open-minded, understanding and calm.
It’s not easy but be vigilant and understanding towards your child’s needs and you’ll get there. And if your child’s anxiety is becoming a prolonged issue, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
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.
During any transitional phase, creating a calm, low-stress environment for your child can really help them deal with the upcoming changes.
“The challenge is establishing routines again and communicating new routines effectively,” says Marianna. “Use visual aids or social stories and provide clear explanations wherever possible, especially given all the new rules that will be in place in schools.”
As a parent or carer, your own emotions can also play a significant role, so try to express calmness and confidence whenever possible. Planning ahead, especially for things going wrong, and being methodical can help reduce your own anxieties about your child’s return to school.
Another big concern for parents of autistic children returning to school is meltdowns and panic attacks, especially those that occur on the journey to school or at the school gates.
“One of the most important things in dealing with a meltdown is understanding the meltdown,” says Ann. “The key is to try and identify what your child is communicating. That’s not always easy as meltdowns can happen without any obvious triggers.”
A helpful way to begin understanding the cause of your child’s meltdowns is to keep a record of the times and dates they occur and anything associated with them. This can help to identify the early stages of a meltdown, allowing you to put pre-emptive strategies in place for the future.
Pre-emptive strategies are crucial when the cause of a meltdown is something that cannot be avoided, like, for example, leaving your child at the school gates in the morning. If this is a particular concern for your child, have a chat with them the night before and identify potential worries.
If arriving at school is a persistent cause of stress, it might help to look at any triggers in the environment itself, such as the noise of other children at the school entrance. Speak with the school to see if any supports can be arranged, like meeting a trusted staff member at the gate or having a safe zone once inside to provide a less stressful transition.
Of course, there’s so much more to managing your child’s anxiety and return to school than just what’s here – and we’ll continue sharing advice from our experts in our webinars and blogs.
If you think professional help could be appropriate for your situation, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our supportive team of advisors who will listen and make recommendations on the best options for you and your family.