Although for many children with Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC) and their families homeschooling has been an incredibly challenging experience. There are others for whom it has been a great relief.
School is often a particularly difficult environment for children and young people with ASC. The potential for bullying, sensory overload and the burden of social communication can mean that individuals would much rather be at home and remain at home. Clearly, if there are issues that can be dealt with such as bullying or sensory challenges these must be addressed before the child returns to school.
The co-occurrence of other things such as ADHD, sensory issues, repetitive behaviours and anxiety or depression can all combine to make sleep an elusive commodity for someone with ASC. There is also some research that suggests that people with ASC can also have irregular melatonin levels which is a hormone associated with sleep. Some individuals may not notice the social cues associated with bedtime and sleep or may have food sensitivities that cause gastric discomfort. This lack of sleep can then result in exacerbating behaviours associated with ASC not to mention causing great stress for families.
The prospect of returning to school can create great anxiety. Not to mention that this will mean yet another change to routine. It should therefore be anticipated that for some individuals there is a risk that they may become “school refusers”.
Refusing to go to school, having meltdowns and showing obvious distress are really very challenging to deal with as a parent. Not to mention parents often feel that they, or their parenting skills, are being judged. Those who are unsympathetic do not understand how difficult it is when you are dealing with a school refuser. Anyone that just says “make them go” has never had to deal with it. In reality, you cannot “force” a child to go to school and this approach can in fact be very damaging.
If your child is refusing to go to school it is important to work closely with the school particularly the school SENCO and potentially involve other professionals such as your GP and CAMHS.
There is, however, a lot you can do to support a child or young person with returning to school.
- Keep a diary of the behaviours not just on the days when your child is supposed to go to school but also in the run-up to those days and on the days when they are not at school. This will help to see the overall picture of emotions and behaviour in the build-up to the event and also when the anxiety has reduced.
- Try and find out what the issue is by talking with your child. Could it be bullying, sensory overload or other things that they are particularly struggling with? Keep in mind though that an individual with ASC may find it difficult to articulate these emotions and can only demonstrate them through behaviour. Perhaps drawing a picture of how they feel, using emotional symbols that illustrate their emotions or creating and talking through a social story about going to school can be helpful. Older children may find writing things down in a journal helpful or creating a worry box.
- Start early to think about and prepare for the return to school. As soon as you have a date add it to a visual timetable if you have one. Start to add school routines gradually back into the day. For example, getting up at the necessary time, get out their school uniform and leave it out. Start to encourage the individual to wear one piece of uniform at a time adding in additional items when they are comfortable. Also, consider sensory issues here as some individuals may find the labels in clothes or the texture of clothing very uncomfortable. If this is the case talk to the school about uniform compromises or alternatives to the uniform. Start to have lunchtimes/break times at the same time as school and try to ensure that they have the same food/lunchbox, bag, etc. that they will be using in school. Maybe drive (or walk) to the school a few times to become familiar with the journey again and gradually start to stop and stand at the school gates. If possible try to arrange a visit to the school to meet staff when the school is empty of other children so that the individual can re-orientate and get used to the environment again when it is quieter. This is particularly important if the environment has changed since they last attended.
- Most importantly, reach out to your child’s school early and let them know that your child has anxiety about returning. Although difficult because of lockdown see if you can arrange a meeting between your child and their teacher or teaching assistant at home even if socially distanced, for example, your child in the garden and the individual from school on the pavement. Whilst many children will have seen staff virtually it is helpful for them to reconnect in person. Encourage conversation about the return to school. If possible try to facilitate this a number of times. If there are very high levels of anxiety find out if a TA can meet you and travel to school with your child. This is a useful way of merging the transition between home and school. Gradually the TA can meet you further on in the journey to school until finally, they wait at the school gate or door. If this isn’t possible see if the school can connect you with an older child who can carry out this process and form a bond with your child. If this is the case arrange some “play dates” in advance of the return to school.
- Maybe arrange for your child to go into school before other children arrive. Arrange for them to be met by a member of staff. It can be helpful if they can go to a quiet place in school whilst everyone else arrives to avoid the hubbub that this usually involves. In this quiet place ensure that they are doing an activity that they really enjoy but that they only get to do in this place, at this time. It can also be useful if they can access this quiet place during the day if they are feeling overloaded.
- It may be helpful to start the return to school with a reduced timetable. It is far better for a child to happily go into school for a successful hour than to go for an unsuccessful day. This reduced timetable can be gradually built up over a number of weeks.
- Try to be consistent in your routine and praise and reward for every small success. Don’t punish your child if they have a bad day as it will only increase the pressure and anxiety.
- Reach out to organisations such as I AM for support. As a parent, you need support as much as your child does. This can be a really hard issue to deal with and distressing for all concerned.
It can’t be stressed enough that you need to build a good relationship and excellent communications with your child’s school and quite possibly have other professionals involved. We have a blog post about communicating with school here. The approach taken has to be consistent and understand the immense challenges of this issue for all concerned. Consistency and an empathetic approach are vital.
Here at I AM we understand the challenges and the rewards that come with parenting a child with ASC.