Back To School for Autistic Kids
It’s that time again, folks – a new school year is upon us! For Ravenclaw/Hermione Granger types like myself, the back-to-school season is almost like an early Christmas (I LOVE school supplies)! Some autistic kids love going back to school, while others hate it – just like NT kids. As always, when autism is involved, there are extra layers to going back to school for autistic kids.
Going back to school means a change in routine from the summer, first and foremost. It’s a big change and one that needs to be handled carefully for autistic kids. The usual parenting articles will tell you to re-establish bedtimes and waking schedules that may have lapsed over the summer or to stock up on grab-and-go healthy snacks and lunches. If you have an autistic child, you probably kept a routine over the summer or have already started moving back to a school-year schedule, and I bet you keep your kitchen stocked with your kid’s favorites at all times. Let’s look at some more in-depth preparation for going back to school with autistic kids.
Talk about the new schedule
As with just about everything, autistic kids respond better when they have plenty of notice and they understand what’s going on. So talk about what the new schedule is for, when it goes into effect, and how it’ll work. Have these conversations several times if you need to. Discuss what the child will be responsible for – getting up and dressed on time, making their own lunch, making sure their backpack is packed, getting homework done by a certain time – whatever you decide is appropriate for your kid.
Try to visit the school
Most preschools and kindergartens allow students to come in and visit the school, see their classroom, and meet their teacher before school starts. There’s no reason this can’t be done for older kids, too, although you may have to contact the principal or even the school board to make it happen. It might be a good idea for you to meet your child’s teacher, as well, and discuss any concerns you have going into the new year.
Help teens gain independence
Autistic teenagers need to develop independence just like NT teens, and going back to school can be a great time to set new expectations for them. Depending on your teen’s stage of development, they might be responsible for making their lunch or catching the bus, getting their homework done by a certain time, or managing their time to allow for extracurriculars. Let them know you’ll be available to help them, but this is a chance for them to grow and prove how capable they really are. Be sure to keep the praise up and the criticism to a minimum as they go through the year.
Get the kids involved
If you use visual scheduling reminders or a family calendar, let the kids help. Let them help you set up the visual reminders and decide where they should go to be seen every day. For a calendar, let the kids choose a color to write all their notes in and let them mark their first day back to school and other important days. This teaches coping skills without being obvious about it and gets kids feeling like they’re a part of the change, instead of it just happening to them.
Kids are all different
Some autistic kids may start preparing to go back to school all on their own. I did this a lot when I was a kid! I picked out all my school supplies, decided what color notebooks and binders were for which subjects, organized my folders, and made schedules for myself weeks in advance. If your autistic child takes that approach, that’s great! Praise the fact that they’re taking initiative and being independent, encourage and help them. If your kid doesn’t do this on their own, that’s fine, too. They still deserve encouragement and help to get the best start to the school year they can.
The most important part of going back to school for autistic kids is to avoid stress as much as possible. Don’t let a perfectionist wear themselves out planning; don’t let a change-averse kid stress out over too many changes at once. And don’t stress yourself out trying to make everything perfect. You won’t succeed, anyway, and your kids will know you’re upset, which could make it worse for them. Keep breathing, do your best to create the best possible routine for your family, and remember, this too shall pass.
Did you love or hate going back to school as a kid? What’s your best tip for starting autistic kids back to school on a good note? What was the best or worst part of a new school year for you?