The end of the summer is fast approaching, and with that comes one of the most daunting times of year for many families: the transition back to school. This can be a tricky process at the best of times, but given the chaotic year most of us have had, chances are that the shift back to in person teaching might be even more difficult. With all that in mind, I’m happy to be able to offer some simple tips and tricks that might make the transition back into school that bit easier for your autistic kiddos!
Make up/Update a Sensory Toolbox
Giving an autistic child unlimited access to sensory regulatory activities and items is one of the most consistently effective ways to help them to access any environment and reduce the anxiety that such a big change of pace might bring. Every single ‘sensory toolbox’ is different, and needs to correspond with the needs and preferences of the autistic child- whether that’s by giving them access to ear defenders/noise cancelling earphones, providing them with chewy tools, letting them fiddle with blue tack or light up spiky balls or engage in some regulatory movements (more on that later!), it’s important that these strategies and regulatory tools are both explicitly outlined for the autistic child, and that there is a clear route for them to be accessed at any time. Chances are your kid will already have some strategies that they have used in school, or might even already have access to a toolbox; but as a child grows up so too do their sensory needs change, so it’s important that you double check that the strategies they used before are still suitable for their needs, or if anything new needs to be added!
Remember school uniforms can trigger sensory overwhelm for some children. With that in mind, there are 2 important things to do. The first is to remove any tags or random strings from each item of clothing and the second is to wash, wash and wash again. The more an item is washed, the softer it becomes and the more tolerable it can be to wear. Additionally, if you have a young person who can’t tolerate wearing a particular item, substitute it. It is often necessary to outline the accommodations a child requires in relation to uniform, be that wearing a v neck sweater as opposed to a v neck wool jumper, or a tracksuit bottom as opposed to a trousers. However, accommodating a child in this way will lower anxieties felt about wearing a school uniform; improve and provide for sensory safety; and also allow for increased access to any curriculum or lesson plan as the child can focus on what is being shared rather than focusing on the negative sensation they are experiencing. Unfortunately it is sometimes necessary to have this outlined by a clinician before a school will agree to this accommodation. Both an occupational therapist or a psychologist can do this, sharing that it is necessary to do so based either on sensory needs or because of its impact from an anxiety standpoint.
Identify a Safe Person and Safe Space
Every autistic person must be able to access support if they need it. However, it can be very difficult for the autistic person to engage socially in moments of overwhelm in order to avail of these supports. Likewise, as children get older and enter secondary school, it can be embarrassing or uncomfortable for them to ask for supports in a public setting such as a classroom. One way to reduce the social demand and pressure placed on the autistic person to access supports is to have previously identified a safe person (or people) and space (or spaces) that they can access anytime they need. Any safe person must be a member of staff the autistic child or young person trusts and does not feel uncomfortable around, and can be anyone from an SNA to a resource teacher or a specific class tutor. What is important is that the autistic pupil knows that if they go to this person, they will always be willing to listen, to help and to act as a support. Additionally, this person should keep an eye out for the autistic child, attuning to their needs in moments when a child is unable to identify their needs for themselves. Equally important is to allocate a safe space for the autistic person to access any time they might need it, whether it is a spare room in the school that is rarely used, a resource room that can be kept empty, etc. This is a space that the autistic youngster must be able to access at any time throughout the day, and one that can be accessed without the need to go into a major social interaction. Whether by holding up a visual representing the space, or agreeing on a signal to use with every teacher, the autistic kid must be able to transition from the classroom or break environment to this space whenever they need to without worrying about having to engage in conversation.
Tighten up your Schedules!
Visual timetables are something that most secondary schools provide as a standard just to show each student when their subjects are happening. This bog-standard timetable might not be sufficient for an autistic student however, so needs to be updated accordingly to suit their needs. This can be done in a number of ways, from incorporating colour coding schemes that are already being used for the books and supplies for each of their subjects; to including locations of and teachers they will be engaging with in each of these classes; to providing a map of the school with predetermined routes to and from each classroom to help the autistic person navigate the transitions between classes while avoiding confusion and potentially triggering situations like busy packed hallways. Additionally, it might be necessary to supplement a full day timetable with a shorter, more manageable schedule that looks at tasks in lists of 3 (so a first-next-then format, or a To-Do/Done), and swapping out activities as they are completed. Ultimately, by getting a timetable right we reduce the unpredictability of a day and ultimately let the autistic person focus on more important things!
Structure up Unstructured Times!
One of the most daunting prospects for a lot of autistic kids when it comes to school is how they are going to navigate their break times. As such, by reducing unpredictability and adding both structure and motivating activities, we can make this process so much easier! This can be done by working with staff to either set up a breaktime club- like a chess club or a club focused on a special interest activity; having a staff member inconspicuously float around and provide social support and create communication opportunities for the autistic kid at break time (having their SNA be the person who is supervising on yard or in the classroom, for example), or by providing the child with tools to ‘teach’ other kids their favourite game or simply how to ask to join in with other people. Ensuring the child also has autonomy over whether they wish to participate in an activity or spend time alone is essential to the wellbeing of the autistic child or young person. These simple strategies reduce the unpredictability of these incredible unpredictable times and can make a world of difference for the autistic person trying to break into a social setting!
Plan out class routes (and escape routes)
The transition between two classes in secondary school can be highly anxiety inducing for a number of reasons, but arguably one of the most prominent is the sheer volume of people doing the exact same thing. Packed hallways mean more chances for forced social interaction, infringement into personal space, and sensory overwhelm from a variety of different sources. As such, planning and mapping out routes between classrooms that avoid the busiest areas of the school can be a really great way to avoid having to expose a child to that intense stress at multiple times across the day. Equally as important as planning out these class routes though, is planning escape routes. Sometimes a child or young person will just need OUT of a classroom or a social situation, and having a clear avenue for them to take to remove themselves from a situation, physically or socially, makes it infinitely more manageable to do so in times of overwhelm. Prepare in advance (and in moments of regulation) with the pupil what an escape plan/route looks like and remember this strategy is equally important for both primary and secondary school students.
Be a Passive Support
This might be one of the hardest tips to follow as a parent, because for the most part our instinct is to jump in and problem solve for our kids right away (that’s mine, anyway!). But it’s really important to remember that in times of high stress and anxiety- such as the transition back to school- allowing a child time to decompress is essential for their mental wellbeing. Some kids will need active support in doing this, and require encouragement and comfort from you throughout the process to figure out how to regulate; others though, may be much more comfortable engaging in a stim, or with a special interest, or even need to completely remove themselves from the slightest hint of social pressure. In these moments, it’s essential that we act as passive rather than active supports- letting the child know that we are there if needed, but not forcing them to engage with us (or anyone else) in any way until they are ready. Simple gestures like making a cup of tea or coffee and leaving it outside the young person’s door for them to get in their own time are great in these moments. Ultimately, you all know your little people better than anyone else in the world, so you know better than anyone what works for them.
- To prepare the child for the days ahead. Use images, pictures and videos wherever possible.
- To travel the route you will take in the days before school starts.
- To use individualised schedules centred on the needs of the child specifically. Split the schedule into mini schedules if more appropriate.
- To ensure the child has access to appropriate and preferred sensory tools.
- That children need time to settle in and that every child is different. Some will settle on day one. Others may take a couple of months. Both are ok!
- The importance of safe persons and safe spaces to retreat to. Equally important are the escape plans set out in advance of having to enter an environment if possible.
- To allow Time for Decompression both during school and at home.
- Ultimately, consider the individual and plan and implement strategies to best suit them to ensure positive outcomes and wellbeing.