This article will address 5 major issues you may face when your autistic child starts school and how to deal with each. In order, it addresses:
- Transitioning into school
- Break time at school
- School absences or your child's refusal to go to school
1. Transitioning into school
One of the most difficult transitions for any parent is their child’s transition to school and academic life. In this section, we will outline some tips to make sure this transition goes as smoothly as possible for you and your autistic child. Remember that a slow, gradual, and well-planned transition will work best. Stay calm and positive, and your child will follow your example.
There are 3 key steps to preparing your autistic child for school:
1. Familiarity: To decrease some of the anxiety both you and your child might feel towards starting school, slowly and gradually start introducing your child to the things they will need for school (like their school bag, uniform, books, stationary, etc.). Eventually, start to walk or drive past your child’s school to familiarise and normalise the building for them. If possible, arrange for a visit with their class teacher ahead of time.
2. Practising: Start practising your new school routine well in advance, so that you can make sure your routine is set in place and that there are no problems for when the big day arrives. Practise things like putting on your new school shoes and uniform, eating out of a lunchbox, etc.
3. Organising: Having a routine in place can make sure the whole process goes by very smoothly. Try to write down everything your child will need in the morning and put all the required steps in a sequence.
2. Break Times
Lunch and break times can be difficult for your child because of their unstructured nature. You can support your child during breaks by:
- Keeping open communication lines with the school and support staff. Ask teachers to overlook and supervise breaktimes to be on the alert for any issues your child may face and be able to step in and help. However, do make sure this does not become a crutch for your child.
- Suggest your child makes or joins a lunchtime club. This will give your child something to expect and do during breaks.
- Arrange for a predetermined safe and quiet place for your child to go to in case they become overwhelmed. This could be the library or an empty classroom they can retreat to in case they need to calm down for a bit.
- Visual cue cards can be very helpful for your child as they can help them communicate in situations when they may become too stressed. They can also serve as reminders of what to do during break times or who to turn to for help in tricky situations.
Autistic children are highly at risk of becoming bullying targets. Bullying may involve anything from name calling and physical acts like hitting to spreading rumours or social exclusion.
Below are some signs of bullying to watch for:
- They come home with ruined or dishevelled clothes, or their belongings are missing
- They ask for more money than usual or their money has gone missing
- They seem stressed or depressed
- They are engaging in obsessive and repetitive behaviours
- They make excuses to skip school or start being late
- They start bullying their siblings. This might be a behaviour they learned to copy from their peers at school.
Record all instances of bullying and involve the school. Review the school’s anti bullying policy and make sure there is a proper investigation into the matter. You might advise staff to hold an assembly to increase awareness amongst students of different types of disabilities without calling out on any students by name as an example. You can also ask your child’s teacher to designate a “lunch buddy” for your child, i.e. a student who will watch out for your friend during breaks.
It is important to build your child’s self esteem at home. Praise them for achievements, and visually keep track of progress with a tracking board. You might want to talk to your child about successful autistic people, to give them hope and build confidence.
Here are some strategies on how to help your child with homework:
- Consider your child’s abilities: Make sure that your child’s homework is achievable. Is it too easy or too hard? If the difficulty level does not suit your child, they may become frustrated and refuse to do their work.
- Clarify why they must do schoolwork at home: Have the teacher explain to your child why they need to do homework at home. You might need to make the link between schoolwork and homework very explicitly for your child. Try to explain this with a story or use a visual timetable that shows exactly when it is time for homework.
- Clarify homework instructions: Make sure your child knows exactly what they need to do and when to do it by. Ask the teacher to supervise your child when they are noting down homework, or to outline key words and timings on the board for emphasis.
- Reduce tiredness and distraction: By trial and error, find the best time for you and your child to do homework. Do they perform best after a break or straight after school? Try to establish a routine so they know exactly when to do their homework, and where to do it.
- Help your child with time management and organisation: You might want to supervise their progress to make sure they stay focused, or to help solve any problems that might arise. Teach them how to divide and time tasks.
5. School absence and refusal
School refusal is when your child is unable to attend school because they cannot cope with the demands of school. There may be many reasons for this:
- Lack of social skills or bullying
- Difficulty following the curriculum
- Difficulty following the timetable or lack of organisational skills
- Sensory overload
- Transition issues
- Separation anxiety
Pay attention to any patterns of behaviour. Is something upsetting or stressing them? Talk to school staff to see if they are aware of anything that might be distressing your child. Are they being bullied? Could there be gender related issues? Encourage your child to communicate with you. You might find it helpful to ask your child to rate places or events at school on a scale of “very anxious” to “not anxious” to find the root of the problem. You might also want to create a worry notebook in which your child can write about situations, people, or subjects that may be making them anxious and then go over them together. Keep track of all progress your child makes as a reminder of their resilience and to build confidence in their abilities to overcome anything big or small. Consider the transitional steps outlined above when your child goes back to school after a long absence to make the adjustment easier.