Returning to school can be stressful for all children, but especially for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families. While summer activities such as visiting new places, staying with extended family, and attending school holiday care can be enjoyable, they can also be extremely disruptive for children with autism. We need to take this into account before we even start to plan how to help children transition back to school.
When considering how to best start the transition back after each holiday break, you can help set your child up for success by creating a sense of safety amidst all the changes. It is also worth taking a moment to understand the two basic ways we can help to lessen a child’s anxiety.
Firstly, the priority for reducing stress, anxiety, and fear that can accompany the return to school is to help your child’s body and sensory system to physically calm and relax. Encourage your child to play, move, climb, jump, and get lots of movement; provide both muscle and resistance (proprioceptive) movements, and those that promote deep touch pressure input. The right mix for your child will be different from his/her friends. Some children seek out and prefer deep touch pressure, whereas others seek out muscle and resistance activities to help calm and ground themselves. If you’re not sure of the best mix for your child, an occupational therapy sensory assessment can help guide you through this process.
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Secondly, once we have helped children calm their nervous systems through activity (bottom up approach), we can support them and reduce their anxieties by developing a plan for what’s going to happen (top down or cognitive approach).
This article outlines the seven top tips for supporting a child with autism through this stressful back to school transition time, using a combination of sensory (bottom up) and cognitive (top down) approaches.
1. Increase activity options
The school holidays often allow for more flexible time and can be an opportunity to explore new activities. Encourage your child to be active and to try new active pastimes. This might include experimenting with different ways to jump on the trampoline, or trying a new mini trampoline inside (if outside is not an option); swinging or climbing on the tree at the park; or experimenting with different ways to use a fitness ball for exercises both in- and outside. Whether you have a backyard with lots of space to play, or an apartment with little or no yard, there are many creative ways to encourage children to be active.
2. Develop a written routine
Create a sense of routine and safety around what’s coming throughout the holidays. Use a calendar, a whiteboard, or other visual means to write out what’s happening from day to day. Children I work with often create a calendar for the holidays (month to a page) and write the big events that are happening each day. This might include:
- Going to school holiday care
- Going to grandma’s
- Going to the zoo
- Home day
Having an overview of what’s coming up over the week gives children knowledge and a plan for what to expect over the next few days. Extending this calendar for at least the first two weeks of school term shows them visually when an event is happening (e.g., Is it happening tomorrow, or in two weeks?), and if they cross off each day as they go, they develop a sense of passing time and anticipation of how long it is until school starts.
Extending this calendar into the school term also allows a child to see the new routine at a glance, and helps orientate him/her on what’s new or coming up. Include after-school activities as well, such as soccer or swimming lessons, so the child knows what’s in store.
3. Review past visual strategies
In addition to having a monthly calendar as an overview, it is a great time to use any visuals you have used with your child in the past and set up new daily schedules or visuals for upcoming holidays, as well as the school transition. This might be a simple list using words describing what the day holds, board maker pictures, clip art, photos, or other pictures. Choose a medium that your child understands.
Create a space with easy access where the routine for each day can be displayed. Write down or use the pictures to show what happens as part of the morning routine, as well as what will happen during the day and the evening. Some children need more detail, and some need less. Chat with your occupational therapist or speech pathologist for guidance, if needed.
Once you have this list or visual, your child can tick things off as they are completed, or he/she can pull off the visual marker and put it in a “finished” box.
Often, the end of the school year is extremely busy and some of our strategies, such as these visuals, may be forgotten or not used as extensively. Getting ready at the beginning of a school year and starting afresh is a great way to support your child for the new school year.
4. Write a social story
Social stories combined with photos or clip art are a fun way to talk with your child about what’s coming up and how he/she might feel about any approaching changes. They can also provide strategies that help a child feel safe about the new changes. A simple social story might start with:
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Social Stories for autistic children
“It’s been a really fun holiday time. We got to do these things during the holidays (list or write about these). Next week, I’m going to go back to school. I might feel (sad, nervous, worried) about going back to school. That is OK. I can be brave when I go back to school. My first day of school is (day). When I go back to school, I will get there by (walking, car, bus). When I get to school, I can go to (place: classroom, etc.). I will see my friends (names). My new teacher is (name if known) / I don’t know who my new teacher will be. This is OK. When I get to school, I will be told who my teacher is. When I go into class, I can sit quietly and listen to what will happen that day.”
Add in photos of teachers, friends, the front gate of the school, the school bus if possible, or use clip art to decorate and convey the meaning of the story visually.
5. Create a sensory-safe space
Use the time off from school as a chance to create or review a sensory-safe retreat space for home. This might be a bean bag in a corner of the bedroom, a small inside play tent, or a large cardboard box. Place comfortable cushions, favorite toys or teddies, visual oil timers, fidget toys, a heavy or weighted blanket, or other sensory calming toys in this space. Encourage your child to use this during the holidays to practice, and once school starts, encourage him/her to have retreat time before or after school so he/she can be grounded and self-calm.
6. Share helpful strategies with teacher
Ensure your child understands that the sensory safe place is not a “time out” or discipline space, but rather a time to feel safe and calm. Once you have discovered what your child finds helpful for a retreat space at home, share this information with your child’s teacher so he/she can create a sensory-safe or retreat space in the classroom. Be sure to include successful strategies as well.
7. Consider fatigue with transition
Monitor your child’s tiredness during the holidays and in the return to school. Many children become very tired during periods of transition, and may not sleep as well or for as long as usual because they are nervous and excited. An earlier bedtime might help if they are becoming overtired, or some deep touch pressure exercises, such as squishing them firmly with an exercise ball, or using massage to help them relax and get to sleep more easily.
8. Encourage communication
Help your child understand and communicate how he/she is feeling. Use a feelings thermometer or other visual chart to determine whether your child is feeling happy, sad, calm, worried, or angry. A great way to do this is to use a model such as the “Just Right Kids” Model of Self-Regulation. Children turn the arrow to show exactly how they are feeling, and use the colors to describe their emotions (e.g., I’m feeling blue, green, red, or yellow). More information on this is provided below.
Helping children to transition back to school can feel a little overwhelming in the anticipation. As parents, look after yourselves, keep yourself active and fit (bottom up approach), and pick some ideas from this article to create a plan for how you are going to support your child (top down approach). If you are feeling overwhelmed, talk to your occupational therapist or other professional, your child’s teacher, or your support network. You are not alone; you can do this and you are doing a great job.
This article was featured in Issue 66 – Finding Calm and Balance