Going back to school after the long summer vacation is daunting. While most students feel a mix of excitement and nervousness at the prospect of having new teachers, new classes, new friends, or even a new school, autistic girls are likely to find these changes scary and overwhelming.
To make matters worse, the uncertainty and turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic make going back to school this year even more difficult than it usually is.
While we are in unchartered territory in terms of how the pandemic will affect our lives, schools, and students in the months to come, below are some tips and tricks I used to make my transition back to school less stressful. It includes the unique challenges I faced as a girl with autism.
Get back into a sleep routine
One of the advantages of being on summer vacation is that we can have a more laid-back sleep routine. However, suddenly switching to waking up earlier can be a challenge. The best way to avoid this is by gradually tweaking your daughter’s sleep and rise times a week or two before school starts.
In order to have a positive start to the day, ensure your daughter has enough time in the morning to comfortably have a shower, get dressed, and eat breakfast without having to rush or stress about being late for school.
Establish a morning routine
Many autistic girls struggle with time management. This can make sticking to a morning routine challenging. Since I easily lose track of time, I time my morning routines to music. I have playlists and specific songs that help me stay on track when showering, getting dressed, and putting on my makeup.
In order to help your daughter establish a good hygiene and grooming routine, make a checklist of the steps she needs to take each morning and post it in the bathroom. For example, she’ll need to shower, put on deodorant, and brush her teeth and her hair.
Before your daughter goes to bed each evening, encourage her to select the clothes she wants to wear to school the next day and encourage her to prepare her school backpack. By organizing herself in advance, she will have a less hectic and stressful morning and will be less likely to forget her homework or a book she needs for class.
Address organizational issues
Many autistic students have organizational issues. I often struggled to bring the correct books to my classes. To avoid the humiliation of repeatedly forgetting to bring the right books, I eventually bought a huge backpack and started carrying all of my textbooks to all of my classes.
This was not an ideal solution! Eventually, I designed a color-coding system that made it easier for me to organize myself. If possible, ask your daughter’s school to provide you with a copy of her class schedule in advance. Color code her class schedule by assigning a different color to each class. Buy a folder, notebook, and plain stickers in each of the different colors.
For example, if you assign math the color purple, buy a purple folder, purple notebook, and a plain purple sticker to stick on the spine of your daughter’s math textbooks and workbooks. Determine how many items your daughter should take to her math class and write that number on the sticker. This will make it much easier for your daughter to know which books and items she needs to bring to her math class.
Address directional challenges
Many people with autism are directionally challenged. I often struggled to find my classroom, especially if I had to navigate through a crowd of students who were all racing to get to their next class. Ask your daughter’s school if they can provide you with a map of the school in advance.
Identify the right room for each of her classes on the school map and fill it in with the color you assigned to the class (i.e., purple for the math classroom). If possible, contact her school to ask if you and your daughter can go there a few days before school starts so you can locate the classrooms and practice getting from one classroom to the next.
In addition to marking a route to get from classroom to classroom and to my locker, I also add landmarks that stand out to me and let me know I am heading in the right direction. For example, a water fountain or a particular display cabinet.
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Identify and organize her school locker
Ask your daughter’s school if they can provide you with the number and location of your daughter’s locker in advance. If your daughter will be using a locker for the first time, consider giving her plenty of opportunities to practice opening and closing a combination lock at home.
Combination locks can be fiddly. Some autistic students may require a lot of practice in order to master how to consistently open their combination lock. One way to help your daughter ensure she can easily find the books she needs for each of her classes is to encourage her to group each of the colors together.
For example, if she groups all the items with purple stickers together, it will be much easier for her to find the books, folders, and other items she needs to take to her math lesson. Your daughter should also stick a copy of her color-coded class schedule inside her locker, as well as keep a copy on her phone and in her backpack.
Identify the main autism-related issues and ask for accommodations
Minor changes can have a huge impact on your daughter’s school day. Once you have identified the main autism-related issues that negatively impact her, raise them with her school and propose a solution.
For example, if your daughter finds the transition between classes overwhelming, ask her school if she can be allowed to leave her lessons five minutes early. This will give her the peace of mind of knowing she can avoid the sensory overload caused by having to make her way through the chaotic, loud, and crowded school hallway.
Navigating the school cafeteria
The school cafeteria can be the cause of significant sensory overload and social anxiety. School cafeterias often have harsh lighting and are noisy and packed with people. The smell of lots of different foods mixing together can be nauseating. I always struggled to balance my tray and lost sleep worrying over the humiliation I would suffer if I dropped my lunch tray in front of everyone.
To make matters worse, school cafeterias are social hubs where students are expected to sit together and socialize. The social landscape at the school lunch table can be difficult for autistic girls to decipher and navigate. There are so many complex and unwritten social rules that govern lunchtime interactions. For example, where you sit, who to talk to, when to talk, and what to talk about.
I found the combination of sensory overload and expectation to socialize so overwhelming I avoided going to the cafeteria and often went the entire school day without eating. My school eventually gave me permission to have my lunch at an alternative location.
If your daughter finds the school cafeteria too distressing, ask her school if she could be allowed to eat in a quieter and less chaotic location, such as an empty classroom. If your daughter eats the food made at the school cafeteria, you may also want to ask that she be allowed into the cafeteria a few minutes early so she can avoid getting jostled by the crowds and reduce the amount of time she spends waiting in line.
Of course, you should discuss any decision that differentiates or sets your daughter apart from her peers with her beforehand.
Minimize the risk of being bullied
One of the main worries I had about returning to school was being bullied. This is a valid concern. Unfortunately, girls with autism make easy targets. The best prevention against bullying is for your daughter to have a few close friends who protect and stand up for her.
However, many autistic girls prefer their own company and have few, if any, friends. This makes them especially vulnerable to being mistreated. I found the best way to minimize being bullied was to identify and avoid bullying hotspots.
For example, bullying usually happens during less structured time, such as during breaktimes and lunchtime and in unsupervised locations like the cafeteria, the bathrooms, playgrounds, and stairwells. I found the best way to avoid being bullied was to spend my break times in places that had more structure and supervision, such as in the library or at a supervised lunch club.
Develop a positive relationship with school and teachers
It is also important for you to develop a positive relationship with your daughter’s school and teachers so you can have an open line of communication. It is likely some of your daughter’s teachers have little or no experience in supporting and teaching autistic girls.
If this is the case, consider providing these teachers with articles or books you have found particularly informative and helpful. I suggest you also provide your daughter’s teachers with an organized document that includes specific information on how to support her, such as her likes and dislikes, her sensory sensitivities, strategies that have previously been successful, and her particular challenges.
Going back to school can be an exciting time full of promise and possibilities. The best way to ease your daughter’s transition back to school is for you to work together to identify the areas she finds challenging and to come up with imaginative solutions.
The best gift you can give your daughter is letting her know you are her biggest supporter and that you will help her with any unexpected challenges she faces throughout the school year. Never forget you are your daughter’s best advocate!
This article was featured in Issue 104 –Transition Strategies For Kids With Autism