Back-to-School Blues: Helping Children With Autism Tackle the Tough Routine Change
The adjustment of starting a new school year is tough on everyone (parents included!). There are the earlier bedtimes and alarms, tighter schedules, new teachers, classmates and after school activities – all a bit jarring for many children. This is especially true for those with autism, for whom a change in routine can spur overwhelming anxiety.
Our Fort Myers ABA therapists at FOCUS know dislike of change is one of autism’s most common diagnostic symptoms, manifesting in a range of ways, including avoidance, distraction, negotiation, resistance – or a full-blown meltdown.
With federal health data now indicating 1 in 65 children in the U.S. has an autism diagnosis, more parents and caregivers are learning how best to navigate challenges with transitions – whether it’s something as seemingly small as moving from playtime to mealtime or as major as starting a whole new school. It’s important to understand both why transitions are so tough for kids the spectrum and also how we as parents, teachers and therapists can help it all go more smoothly.
Why Routine Disruption is Tough for Children With Autism
For many kids on the spectrum, the world is often an overwhelming – and sometimes confusing – place to navigate. Routines – doing things always in the same order – help them to feel more secure because they know what to expect. Disrupting that routine can be extremely upsetting, almost as if the person has lost their equilibrium – something clinical neurologists refer to as cognitive inflexibility. (It’s also the same reason for all those hyper-focused interests.)
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities is one of the main diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It can look a bit different for every child. It might be refusing to eat more than four specific foods (and only certain brands, cut a certain way, served on a certain plate, etc.). The fact that even these tiny details can matter so much gives you an idea of how much those bigger changes – such as alteration of an entire daily schedule can seem impossibly overwhelming.
Our ABA therapists know this is especially true if a child’s receptive language is hindered because they may not fully understand what’s happening or why, even if you explain ahead of time. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try anyway, but some approaches to doing so may be more effective than others.
Help Your Child With Autism Adjust With New Back-to-School Schedule
The good news is many children with autism can adapt and settle into a routine quite well – with parental preparation and support.
Some general tips our FOCUS Fort Myers ABA therapists can offer include:
- Visit the school beforehand. Lee County School District classes started last week, so you may have already done this. Most schools have open house hours, but often, that environment can be too overwhelming for a child with autism (the hallways are packed with parents and children and teachers, it’s loud, it’s chaotic, there are regular announcements over loudspeakers, etc). If possible, see if the teacher will allow you to schedule a one-on-one tour at a quieter time.
- Visual schedules. Understanding and following instructions is often a challenge for children on the spectrum. Take pictures when you tour the school. Take pictures of the bus (or whatever will be their typical mode of transportation). Take pictures of aspects of the morning and evening routine. Use this to create a visual schedule (Pinterest has lots of great DIY visual schedule ideas). This can help enhance your child’s level of comfort.
- Inform the teacher. You know your child best. Your ABA therapists know your child well. And while there are so many incredible teachers in Southwest Florida, the truth is the demands of their job mean they can’t possibly know each child’s detailed likes, dislikes, motivations and sensory triggers. You can help them out with a one-page, laminated document that has this important information on it. You might even consider making a few copies so the bus driver has one and even the school’s speech and occupational therapists. This way, teachers and others who will be working closely with your child will have a simple, handy guide to reference.
- Establish a safe space. You may want to discuss this with your child’s teacher when you take the tour or schedule a time to talk about it soon after school starts. A safe space would be a place to which your child could retreat for a few minutes if they start to feel too overwhelmed. It can go a long way toward helping your child feel more in control of what’s happening.
- Reach out to other parents. Sometime within the first few weeks, consider contacting other parents of classmates to set up a play date. A child who is more comfortable with his/ her peers is going to adapt more quickly.
Of course, we offer all this with the caveat that the individual needs of each child can vary. Your child’s ABA therapist, occupational therapist and speech therapist can help you address specific concerns and brainstorm strategies that are tailored just for him/ her.
FOCUS offers ABA therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.
Why Do Kids Have Trouble With Transitions? By Katherine Martinelli, Child Mind Institute
More Blog Entries:
“Bad” Behavior in Kids Could Signal Need for Occupational & Speech Therapy, Aug. 26, 2017, FOCUS Fort Myers ABA Therapy Blog