Back to School for Autistic Parents
Last time we talked about the special considerations around going back to school for autistic kids. But whether your kids are on the spectrum or not, the back-to-school season brings challenges for autistic adults. During the school year, dinners can’t be allowed to slide, bedtimes must be respected, and lunches need to be packed. Today I want to talk about going back to school for autistic parents.
The abrupt change in routine can cause lots of stress for autistic parents. Over the summer break, it’s just as easy for autistic adults to forget schedules (outside of work) as it is for kids to ignore bedtimes. If this has happened to you, THAT’S OK. You are not a bad parent or a bad person. Routines can be re-established, or improved upon from last year, or made completely anew. You can make the necessary changes to take care of yourself so that you can take care of your family.
Adjust Your Own Schedule
Mainstream back-to-school articles will tell you to start re-orienting your child’s sleep schedule to a school year model about two weeks before school starts. But what about your own? You’ve probably got a fairly solid routine if you work outside the home. But over the summer, did you maybe start sleeping in a little bit because you didn’t have to get the kids up and dressed or make their lunches? You need to get yourself back into the “school morning” schedule. Make sure to allow enough time for whatever you need to do in the mornings, whether that’s making breakfast, packing lunch (yours or theirs), helping little ones get dressed, or having a cup of coffee in peace before the kids get up.
The harder part, of course, is making sure you go to bed at an hour that allows you to get up when you need to. When you send the kids to bed, consider if you might need to start winding down your day, too. Personally, I work during the day plus writing after hours and I’m a night owl to boot, so I know how hard it can be to find a good rhythm. I don’t have a ton of advice for that, except to say that when you’re getting enough sleep, your brain will work so much better – I hope that can be an incentive for you!
If your kids are old enough, let them be responsible for some reasonable things to take a little off your plate. Depending on age and ability, kids can be responsible for getting themselves dressed, packing their backpack, and grabbing or making their lunch. Teenagers can handle even more responsibility and some may be almost entirely independent. They should be able to catch the bus or make it to school on time with minimal parental involvement. If you have a partner who can handle some of the morning or evening chores, work out a good division of labor regarding who makes breakfast or dinner, who gets the kids up or gives them a bath, etc. It takes a village, after all!
Set Up the Night Before
My favorite advice for just about everything is to plan ahead and set yourself up for success. So start your day the night before – I promise, it’s not as overwhelming as it sounds! First, set out your clothes for the next day. For young kids, you can let them choose from two or three options instead of everything in their closet. In the morning, everything from underwear to socks and shoes is right where it ought to be. Pack up backpacks with homework, books, etc., and set it out ready to grab and go. Lunchboxes can go in the kitchen, ready to be filled.
Speaking of lunchboxes, see how much you can prep the night before. Sandwiches generally need to be made fresh, but fruit, chips, pretzels, and the like can be pre-packed. Leftovers from dinner can make great next-day lunches and can be packed up immediately after dinner.
The best thing you can do as an autistic parent is to keep your own stress levels down as much as possible. Your stress will bleed out onto your partner and your children and make your home very unhappy if you’re constantly on edge. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to do everything yourself – our society tends to pile a lot onto moms and autistic parents are likely to try to be perfect to overcompensate. Ask for help when you need it and keep your own routine as solid as you can. By taking good care of yourself, you’ll be taking care of your family as well.
Autistic parents, what’s your best advice for maintaining your sanity at the start of a new school year? Do you have a great routine or system for keeping meals on schedule and getting homework done? What’s your biggest struggle as a parent this time of year?