Ways to Reduce School Stress for your Child w/Autism (video)
Back to school can mean back to anxiety for children with autism. The ways in which children with autism process their surroundings, or think and understand, are usually different than ours. A lot of the time, things that happen to children with autism don’t make sense to them, so they tend to develop anxieties, or fears, which lead to stress. Since these children have difficulty with self-regulation, or adjusting their reactions and feelings, a joint effort between the school staff members and you as the parent will help reduce anxieties.
Your child’s anxieties might not always be so obvious because, again, we don’t always process information the same way they do. Sometimes we can use language, or talking to identify what the fears are that your child has. Then we can figure out why so that we can explain it in a way he or she can understand or change the environment to make him or her feel more comfortable.
Take examples I have observed through the years. One of my 8-year-old students was suddenly refusing to go to school when before she had enjoyed it. Through talking with her, I realized that during this time, students within her grade were being tested repeatedly. She was anxious and nervous because she has been taught to always respond to the teacher’s questions, and if she had trouble responding, she was encouraged to ask for help. She asked me why teachers give students help at every other time except for tests. Hmph—good question. The parents, teachers, and I thought of solutions that included some forms of “help” on tests like answer banks—where all answers are listed randomly, a choice of only two answers, and open book—where she is able to look up answers in her text book. For the first time in my career, I realized this contradiction in our unwritten social rules of society. I understood how my student felt confused and frustrated. So, to give her the most independence, I discussed with her parents and teachers that, in all fairness, if no help—or not enough help-- can be given during tests, it’s only logical and justifiable to write “I don’t know” on the test.
A mainstreamed third grade student of mine developed a pattern of feeling sick and staying home from school every Thursday. We figured out that physical education class took place on Thursdays. Phys. Ed. class can be overwhelming for kids with autism--the physical effort, requirements for speed, fine and gross motor coordination of body movements, sensory overload of the gym—the large room where everything sounds louder, bright lights, kids running all around on top of confusion about rules of the game and the strategies behind team sports like basketball and kickball. I imagined myself in his shoes-- I would be absent too. Solutions included him remaining within the mainstream for part of the week. Rather than participating in the game, he chose a job to do like passing out and collecting equipment and keeping score while cheering the teams on. In this way he improved his functional language skills like saying, “Here’s your ball.” and “Good luck!” and “Aw, nice try”. The other part of the week, he attended a different adaptive phys. Ed. class which matched his abilities in order to participate directly in the sports and activities of that class.
One of my Kindergarten students would tantrum when he entered his classroom. Along with school being a new experience, there had been a fire drill. Fire drills are unexpected, extraordinarily loud, and can be confusing and scary. Naturally, being afraid of fire, this Kindergartener would be frozen with fear, screaming, because of the sudden disruption in his routine, the blaring sound, and the hurry to exit the building…but also we discovered he was anxious because he couldn’t see where the fire was. Our solution was to explain that a fire drill usually means that everything is ok and there is usually no fire but to keep everyone safe, we have to make believe there is a real fire somewhere out of sight. We explained that the fire bell has to be sudden because we never know when there might be a fire somewhere in the building, and the bell has to be loud so that everyone in the school can hear it and get out safely. We had a pair of over-the-ear headphones available for him during a fire drill to block out some of the noise and calm him while a paraprofessional teacher’s aide walked alongside him.
You as the parents together with school staff members including teachers, paraprofessional teacher’s aides, occupational/physical and speech-language therapists, behaviorists, and psychologists can help make your child’s school experience safe, comfortable, educational, and enjoyable. -KKS