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Kids With Autism Spectrum Disorder and the New School Year

Finding ways to help kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (and Asperger’s Syndrome) deal with the annual challenge of new teachers, new classrooms, new classmates and a new routine

The beginning of a new school year is tough on most kids. Gone are the summer-holiday freedoms. In their place are new uniforms, new teachers, new text books and new obligations.

But it’s even more of a challenge for a kid with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Justine Watson is a Sydney-based counsellor. She’s also the mother of two school-age kids, one of whom has ASD. Not surprisingly, her work these days focuses on helping families to meet and manage the challenges of ASD. And those challenges are often at their most acute at the start of the new school year.

Stress at School

As Justine explains, ASD kids find school a tough environment in the first place. Every day they have to complete tasks that they find incredibly challenging: things like sitting still, understanding simple commands, dealing with classroom noises, joining in group activities, playing sport and eating around other people.

“The average school day is a million times harder for a kid with Autism Spectrum Disorder than for your average child,” says Justine.

Holidays Provide a Welcome Break

The holidays are a time when kids with ASD can retreat from all those stresses.

“You get six weeks off to play PlayStation and sit at home by yourself and be with your mother who is probably one of the only people in the world that you actually like and trust…” says Justine with great empathy, “And then you’re wrenched out of that back into school. And that’s really, really distressing.”

Building Up to the New School Year

Briony is the mother of an eight-year-old boy with Autism – and she knows only too well the phenomenon described by Justine. “Our son’s biggest challenge is the build up to the new school term,” she says.

In the past Briony’s son has reacted very badly to the situation: hurting himself, having major emotional meltdowns, regressing with toileting and increasing his obsessive behaviours.

“For example constant – and I do mean constant – questions about Pokemon, questions about time, increased mouth noises such as ‘bachoo bachoo’ and increased physical movement, mainly spinning and tucking up in blankets.”

Reducing Stress; Ideas for Starting the School Year

Perhaps the reason Briony can be so calm and candid when reporting these behaviours is that she has developed a range of strategies to help her son deal with the new school year. Before the big school holidays begin, she takes photos of her son’s new teacher and new classroom and introduces them to him before he starts back at school. And she takes simple home movies of any new situations he might be likely to confront: things like school assemblies or new library routines.

“Challenges are introduced slowly and without pressure,” she says.

Schools Can Help

Briony also champions the support given to her family by the school. Together she and her son’s teachers have established some strategies to help her son cope in the classroom, especially when his anxiety levels are on the rise.

“In the past it was difficult for him to separate from me so the school took a photo of me and laminated it. He carried it in his pocket. On the back it said ‘Mum will pick me up at 3 o’clock’ and there was a picture of a clock with the hands pointing to 3pm. That stopped a lot of classroom stress.”

Charlotte is another mother keen to express her appreciation of the support given to her family by her son’s school. Charlotte’s son has Asperger’s Sydnrome and is going to school for the first time this year. Before he started, Charlotte met with her son’s kindergarten teacher, the school principal and an early intervention specialist.

“It was a good time for me to flesh him out as a person, to discuss his likes and dislikes, his abilities and his difficulties and allow them to get a feel for him (so) that he was more to them than just a list of disabilities,” she says.

The school’s strategies included putting together a photo book of all the kids in her son’s kindergarten class so that the names and faces would begin to feel familiar.

“It’s been great,” says Charlotte of the photo book. “Feeling more comfortable about who he’s learning with has helped him feel less anxious about going to school.”

Simple things like photo books and home movies can do a lot to make ASD kids feel more settled. They can also help to take away some of the new year stresses for parents of kids with ASD – and that, according to counsellor Justine Watson, is crucial.

Parents of Children with Autism Feel Stress Too

“The management of parents’ anxiety is of the utmost importance,” she says. “All of the anxiety that a parent [of an ASD kid] faces on a daily basis is more than most people could cope with anyway. And then you add [the pressures of] having to advocate for your child at school and feeling anxious about your child’s first day back or first term back! That actually contaminates the relationship between the parent and the child. It doesn’t make for a very happy life. It makes for a very stressful life.”

That’s something that Briony has learned over the years.

“All you can really do is do your best each day, whatever that may be. And keep your sense of humour intact because, no matter how great your ‘best’ is, there will be days when you feel like the worst parent on earth. And it’s times like those you need to be able to sit back and laugh at the great injustice of it all!”