Back to School in a Strange Year

School is starting again, but nothing is normal this school year.  Parents are facing choices between virtual classes, part-time school, or full homeschooling.  Kids are looking at limited socialization, only being allowed to interact with a few of their classmates, if any.  Everything is weird, off, and out of routine, which means autistic kids and parents alike are under strain.  This will not be easy, but here are some ideas for going back to school in 2020 with your sanity intact.

If You’re a Parent of an Autistic Child

Understand What Has Changed

Many autistic kids have thrived being at home, without the distraction of a full class of kids and the accompanying social stresses.  If that’s your child, you might opt to continue online schooling or homeschooling.  However, if your child does better with a more social environment, it’s important that they get that socialization.  In-person classes may be the right choice for you, but if not, find other ways for your child to get their social time.

Autistic students who have a 1 to 1 aide in school have been without that help for the last several months.  It’s important to know if they will have that support going back to class – will they have an aide, will it be the same one, were they getting the support they needed or do they need something else, can they have an aide in virtual classes?  These are all questions that will affect your child’s reaction to the new school year.   

Read this thread on Twitter by Pete Wharmby for more considerations of your autistic child’s point of view

Create and Maintain Routine

If you’re a parent of an autistic kid, you already know routine is key.  No matter if your child is in virtual classes each day, going to campus every morning, or splitting their schedule, keep that routine running!  It helps autistic kids to know that some things will be the same every day, no matter if they’re going to school or getting on the computer.  Use visual schedule cues, calendars, whiteboards, whatever works for your family to make sure everyone knows what’s happening.

Create a space in your home that’s just for school.  It will help kids get in the right mindset for classes if they know they’re “going to” school, even if they’re only going to a corner of the dining room.  Keep it free of distractions, but make sure it’s sensory-friendly and has some stims available for them.  You might consider marking the area off with a small screen or even painter’s tape on the floor.  This can also be an area for homework if your kids are attending in-person classes.

Many people find that getting dressed is conducive to working or schooling, but for autistic people (especially kids) comfort is the biggest thing.  Try designating “comfy school clothes” or “school pajamas” that aren’t actually pajamas but feel like them. 

Maintain bedtimes, wake times, meal and snack times, regardless of what school model you choose.  Keeping autistic kids fed, hydrated, and rested is the bedrock of helping them cope with all this weirdness.

If You Are an Autistic Parent

If you’re an autistic parent, this whole thing is probably already driving you mad.  It’s ok.  Breathe.

Create and Maintain YOUR Routine

As I said above, keeping everyone – that includes you – fed, hydrated, and rested will keep spirits and morale as high as possible.  Keeping your kids on a routine will help reduce surprises, which will free up your coping resources for the changes that will inevitably come up.  You know by now that everything is changing rapidly and there are hiccups and glitches every day.  Save your energy for the big things by making the little things as automatic as you can.

If you’re working from home, designate your own workspace just like the kid’s schooling area I talked about before.  Not only will it help you make the change into and out of “work mode”, but it will prevent your work from creeping into the rest of your home and taking over!  As a bonus, if you have to be on camera for meetings, you only have to clean the small area that shows and you can forget about the rest of the house if you need to.

Cut Yourself Slack Where Necessary

It’s ok if your house is a mess.  If you and your family are safe, fed, clothed, and healthy, it’s ok if you let the laundry slide for a few days.  This is a freaking mess of a year and nobody is really ok right now – we’re all dealing with a ton of change and stress and grief and, according to some experts, even a form of trauma.  DO NOT hold yourself to normal standards if you’re not up to meeting them and DO NOT beat yourself up for having fewer coping resources than usual these days.

Self-Care for Everybody!

Regardless of whether you’re an autistic parent or raising autistic kids or both, everybody needs to prioritize self-care right now.  Kids and adults alike need to make time for things that make them happy and relaxed.

Breaks are important!  Sensory breaks, especially using movement, get autistic kids re-focused and help adults regulate those feelings we don’t always recognize while they build up.  So have a quick 5-minute dance party, go run around the back yard, or take a walk if the weather is good for it.  Other quick breaks from the work of coping could be singing a song or two, taking a few minutes to stim or use a fidget (if you knit or crochet, you know how much more regulated and grounded you feel after finishing a couple of rows), or making story time a daily thing.

Comfort is a high priority with everything being as chaotic as it is right now.  For some people, that means regular hot baths or a nightly cup of tea, but there’s more to it than that.  For autistic people of all ages, comfort means our favorites.  If your kids want to watch their favorite videos on repeat or request their favorite meals and snacks over and over, now is not the time to fight over that.  If you feel like listening to your favorite song on a loop or find yourself going back to your favorite shows that you can quote, that’s because they’re comforting and that’s ok!  As much as possible, make sure everyone in your family gets to have their favorite things around, including GoodFeel textures, favorite foods, movies, music, etc.

This school year is not something we ever expected to have to face.  Kids are expected to go on with school and cope with changes that may not make sense to them; parents are forced to make decisions that have no truly good options available.  This is a weird, uncertain, scary time.  But keeping routines and making self-care and comfort a priority can help autistic kids and parents get back to school in this very strange year with less stress and more calm.

Black and white picture of two young girls facing each other both working on laptops. White and blue text on a purple background reads "Back to School in a Strange Year"

How are you coping with the new school year?  Are your kids staying home or going to class?  How are you keeping everyone in your family on an even keel, or how are you handling the extra meltdowns?  Autistic parents of autistic kids, do you have any insights on keeping yourself together while keeping your kids together? 

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