It’s the beginning of the school year, and likely you and your child have survived the first week. For many kids with autism, the first few days are overwhelming and full of fear, meltdowns, and a variety of other behaviors. With my son, who’s now in eigth grade, the transition was better this year, even though he’s attending yet another new school. But his first day was still full of anxiety, and he struggled with nausea and an upset stomach. Last year, those symptoms lasted most of the first week. It’s tough on the kid and on the parent.
This year, my son is enrolled in a charter school. It has smaller class sizes, and there are only about 50 kids in his entire grade. The staff is super friendly and involved, personalizing the education for each child there. My husband, son, and I are already super impressed and feel very blessed to be enrolled there.
But what if your school situation isn’t optimal? For the past two years, ours wasn’t optimal either. Much of our concerns were simply beyond our control: teachers who wouldn’t comply with IEP requirements, overcrowded school rooms, chaotic environments, and so on.
I still believe in the value of public education and want my son to participate. He does too. Because he is high functioning, we’ve always mainstreamed him. That is what’s worked for us, but every child’s situation is different. If you feel that your kid with autism would benefit from a public education but suffers from anxiety, you might try a few things that have worked for us.
Tips to Reduce Anxiety
- Before school starts, visit. If it’s a new school, ask for a tour when the halls aren’t busy and your child won’t be subjected to chaos. Otherwise, his first impression will be overwhelming and negative. Also, be sure to attend Back-to-School Nights and registration days. Do what you can to let your child “practice” their new school routine. Be sure to meet the principal, special-ed teachers, school psychologist, and your child’s advisor. Meet them in person before school if you can but especially when school starts. I once had a school secretary tell me the principal was too busy to meet with me. No matter what, don’t let anyone dissuade you from meeting your children’s school leaders in person.
- Ask the school for help. Before the first day of school, I tell teachers and office staff about our situation and arrange for us to arrive when we can. You see, the first morning back to school, my son is usually camped out in the bathroom with anxiety-induced problems. So he needs to take his time. By talking with the school staff ahead of time, I can arrange for my son to be excused from all tardies until he can adjust to the new school routine. I also make prior arrangements so he can leave any classroom–without asking–if he needs to dart into a bathroom. Not one teacher has ever refused this request. Just knowing that he doesn’t have to worry about being on time to classes for the first few days and can visit the bathroom whenever needed is a huge relief to my son. I know of some parents who arrange for their child to start attending the second week of school to avoid the chaos the first week can bring.
- Take the day off work or arrange to go in late. If you’re a working parent and can take the first day of school off or arrive late, please do so. Your child needs you. They need someone to talk to and help them work through things–no matter how old they are.
- Be organized. Lay out clothes the night before. Have the backpack and planner ready. Get up a little early to allow for more bathroom time. Try to make the morning routine structured.
- Take your time. Talk with your child about their reservations. See if they have specific concerns you can address. Validate their feelings. They are feeling scared, and those feelings are real. Don’t insist that they “suck it up,” hurry, or ignore what they’re feeling. Chances are, they can’t.
- Skip breakfast if needed. When my son is really nervous, he can’t eat a thing. I used to be that way too, so I understand that and don’t push him to have breakfast. If he can, he’ll sip on some water. Usually, by lunch time his nerves have calmed down enough to eat or drink something.
- Pack a favorite lunch. Few things are more wonderful than comfort food. I let my son pick out his favorite foods for the first day–nothing is off limits. If he wants junk food, I go with it. I can follow up with a healthy snack after school and insist on carrot sticks and healthy foods for future lunches. Be sure to include a loving, handwritten note for your child to enjoy. Nothing beats a little love from home when you’re feeling nervous.
- Seek professional counseling. My son and I have benefited from seeing a counselor who showed us several coping skills. Cognitive therapy, in my opinion, is best done when your child’s mind is calm and receptive. Arrange for counseling at school or in the community as needed. There are also several anxiety workbooks for children and adolescents that are available online. Medication may also be necessary. Because my son’s anxiety goes away after a day or two, we haven’t done medication yet. But I wouldn’t hesitate to get some for him if he ever needs it. I just know personally of the side effects that can arise and want to help him control his anxiety with coping skills for as long as we can.
Our Back-to-School Scenario Last Year
Last year, my son desperately needed me for the first several days of school. I had to go in two or three times a day to meet him in the school’s counseling center so he could breathe easier, sip on a protein drink, and have me help him “break down” what he needed to do next. At his request, I went in after first hour so we could see how his stomach was doing. Often, he was ready for a protein drink. Then I’d return for lunch together, which we enjoyed by playing games and visiting. I’d also visit in between classes if he texted me and needed the reassurance in person.
Each time, we met in the counseling center so his peers wouldn’t know that he was seeing his mom. With it being the first year of junior high, he was very sensitive to that. His school counselor was very good to let us use an available room for our visits, and a few times he helped my son find solutions instead of calling me to come in. I’m very grateful for his help, and I’m so glad I could be there for my son when he needed me. By the end of the first week, the anxiety had subsided and he was ready to attend on his own. But I didn’t rush him. When he felt desperate, I reassured him that I would come as long as he needed me.
I realize that I’m blessed to be a homemaker. Not every mom can stay at home. But I would hope an employer would understand if you need to spend some time to help your child. If not, hopefully a grandparent or family friend can step in for you. Your child needs somebody, and they sometimes don’t bond with adults or kids at school–at least not right away.
So Why Don’t I Homeschool?
I recognize that home schooling can be a great option for kids with autism or any kid who struggles with extreme anxiety. In my opinion, mothers who homeschool their kids deserve a special place in heaven for their efforts!:) It takes a very dedicated mom to be a successful homeschooler, and not every mom is up to the task. But homeschooling is the right decision for some families.
If you’re like me and really want to give public or private schools a chance, it’s worth it to help your child through the challenging back-to-school transition time. It’s so good for most children, in my opinion, to achieve that bit of independence each day as they go out on their own. I’ve found that my child and I learn a lot of good things from his teachers and fellow classmates. He’d learn a lot from me too, if I were to teach him at home. But he would also continue to over-rely on me. He tends to be dependent. I can’t replicate what he learns from making his own decisions and being independent while he’s away from me, and he needs to learn to be his own advocate around others. That’s why I work so hard to keep him mainstreamed.
There are other options too. Public schools often allow “dual enrollment.” You teach your kid part-time at home, and they attend some classes at school. I think that’s what we may do for high school. But we still have a couple of years before we have to make that decision with our son. He constantly amazes us with his newfound abilities, so we’ll see what’s right for us then.
For now, we’re beyond pleased with our son’s experience at our local public charter school. He was super nervous the first day but was ready to go on his own after that. He feels safe, secure, and confident at his new school. We’re excited to see what this school year brings!
How has your child coped with going back to school?
What tips would you share with other parents to help kids with autism reduce their anxiety?
You might also be interested in reading what products and tips helped my son last year as he began middle school. Read more here.