The countdown begins. My children start school in a few (long) days. Honestly, I can hardly contain my excitement! Okay, I’m not trying to be harsh, but summers become tedious and mind numbing by the second week of July. This is especially true when you are the proud parent of two on the spectrum and one with ADHD (all girls, way too many hormones).
Don’t get me wrong, I love my children more than anything in this world. All three are intelligent, humorous, and loving in their own way. The main issue becomes routine and summer lacks the routines that my children on the spectrum crave.
I will pat myself on the back and say that I do manage to keep my girls on a loosely constructed routine during the summer months. Now that they are getting older, I am also working with them on dealing with boredom. My oldest daughter turned 14 this summer. I have been diligently working with her to find ways to keep herself occupied when there is no routine.
Needless to say, I think I am ready to have a routine again. I have enjoyed the long summer days, sleeping in, and carefree moments. It has been wonderful to watch my children play with water balloons, overcome fears of roller coasters, and eat drippy ice cream cones. Now that school is rapidly approaching, I am switching gears. I think we are all ready for the tedious routines that fall and back-to-school bring into our daily lives.
School provides daily schedules and structured routines that are almost impossible to create outside the bubble of the school building. Unfortunately, the start of a new school year often brings unwanted anxiety and fear. New teachers, new buildings, new schedules, bring on nightmares and nail biting. These unwanted fears pale in comparison to social anxieties.
“Who will sit by me?” That’s not a simple question.
To help my girls get ready for the new school year, I start preparing before the old school year is even finished. Since my oldest daughter was in second grade, I have requested that the school principal inform me of daughter’s teacher for the next school year. This can be easily added as an accommodation to an IEP or 504 Plan. If your child does not have an IEP or 504 Plan, arrange a meeting with the principal to discuss meeting your child’s teacher for the following year. Knowing your child’s teacher several months in advance, goes a long way towards easing anxiety and the myriad questions about the coming school year.
I ask to visit the new classroom when it is empty and full of children. This provides my children with a sense of direction and space in the classroom. I also like to write a short summary for the new teachers about my girls. I’ve found online tools and templates that allow me to fill in answers to questions about them such as what they like to eat. Think of it as a “getting to know me” letter. (Click here for a link to some templates from Scholastic)
I also try to stick to back-to-school routines at home. Every summer my daughters and I take a trip to the local big box store to stock up on school supplies. This is an important ritual for them. I let them choose their own supplies (within reason). This gives them a sense of independence. I’ve also had success creating social stories about ‘new friends’ that will be made in the new school year. I start school bedtime routines several weeks before school starts. It’s typical for children with autism to have difficulty sleeping, and my girls are no exception. I also make sure they feel comfortable with bus routines–understanding the bus route, the bus number, and the bus driver.
Encourage your children to discuss their fears and concerns about the new school year. If your child is very visual, a calendar countdown can be very helpful. You may want to talk about lunchtime options (hot lunch/cold lunch). Talk about anything and everything you think your child might be anxious about at the start of the year, not when a problem arises.
Each new school year brings new fears. My junior highschooler recently had a meltdown about locker assignments. I always respect her fears and try to help her cope through relaxation, social stories, or any of the ideas I’ve just suggested.
I always remind myself that everyone gets first day jitters. For children with autism, jitters can become uncontrollable monsters. I am patient, kind, and never forget my autism mama superpowers…I can conquer my kids’ back-to-school transition with my eyes closed…and you can too!