< Back

Back to School

Written by 
Nikki Read
'Back to School' blog post.

Getting September ready in an autistic household

After the rather inclement weather that has been a large part of this summer, it is hard to believe that it is now time to turn our thoughts to getting ready for September and the return to, or start, of school.

The new academic year can fill children and parents with dread in a typical household. In a neurodivergent world, this can feel like an immense and daunting undertaking. The team here at Dr Jeczmien’s Practice have a wealth of clinical and lived experience of these challenges. Hopefully, this article will provide some understanding of why it can be so hard for our children as well as sharing some hints and tips based around reducing the anxiety upon the return to school for the whole family.

As a parent of neurodivergent twins, life has been filled with variable and conflicting responses to the new school year. Autism, in particular, can lead to anxiety around all forms of transition. This could be a new toothbrush that’s a different colour, a change of appearance following a haircut, through to a new teacher and year group or a completely new educational setting. All are transitions and all will have an impact on our children. In our home, we had one twin that needed visual reminders of the new setting, pictures of his teacher etc, whilst his brother would tip into ‘fight or flight’ mode at the first whisper of “perhaps it’s time to go uniform shopping”. You know your child best and hopefully, some of the suggestions may be of help. We understand that difficulties around change, sensory challenges and a need for routine will impact our children and our role is to build up tools together to help reduce those challenges until they become manageable for us all. Perhaps a good place to start is by making a short and achievable list of things that need to be done.

Hopefully, the school will have organised one or two transition visits during the summer holidays. This is good practice for children with Special Educational Needs and neurodivergence (SEND). Visiting a new school or different classroom when it is quiet can be reassuring. It also provides an opportunity to take photos to look at together as part of the preparation for September. However, all is not lost if this isn’t in place. Driving past a couple of times during the holidays can be helpful too. Look at pictures on the school or college website together, play spot the familiar teacher, or guess the subject they teach if there is a gallery section for staff or which might be the Hockey pitch. Some school websites may even have a floor plan to explore together. All of these activities begin to build familiarity & may reduce transition anxiety.

If your child absolutely does not want to engage, that’s ok too. Have a look yourself. Familiarise yourself with the information your child is most likely to need. For my older twin that was always based around lunch and break times. We would see if we could spot any info based around sample menus, break time activities and have it ready for when we asked “I wonder what things you might like to know about your new school?”. Choosing a new lunch bag together, and making a picnic lunch to introduce the idea of what a packed lunch might look like can be transition activities that provide reassurance and familiarity dressed up in a bit of fun.

A school bag and books.

And then we have uniform. If your child needs advance planning perhaps shop for uniform early; try to avoid the rush. We all want to get as much wear and growing room out of the shirts and skirts but the autistic world hinges on a balance between practical and manageable. The dreaded wait to have your child’s feet measured in a packed shoe shop used to bring me out in a cold sweat. Perhaps look for a smaller, independent shoe shop; it may be more manageable for all. If you have to use a busy shoe shop, an early purchase may avoid an hour of challenging behaviour in response to an overwhelming environment.

When thinking about school shirts, socks etc, there is a whole world of on-line stores that can reduce the anxiety. There are also suppliers of uniform specially made to be comfortable for children that have sensory differences (no seam socks for example), including large store chains. Do try to wash uniform a few times before the first proper outing; it will soften the fabric, introduce familiar smells and hopefully be one less source of anxiety for your child. If you have a child or young person that absolutely will not engage in uniform shopping, pop the purchased items in their wardrobe once washed & dried. The transition preparation will happen quietly every time they open the drawer or wardrobe.

As with many autistic children and young people, setting up a schedule can be helpful. For younger children, this may be a visual timetable. For our older tweens, teens and young adults, this may be through the use of apps specifically designed to address the executive functioning (organisational) challenges that form part of neurodivergence. It may be helpful to establish the use of schedules during the holidays so that the are already embedded and comfortable. This can really help when school starts as a schedule will show that they will be coming home and that there may well be something a little more ‘fun’ happening in the day. Schedules provide routine, which can be especially helpful when starting something new & unfamiliar.

A parent sitting with a child.

Our wonderful counsellors and coaches here at the practice would also encourage us to be curious with our children. Explore with them what thoughts or worries they may have about starting or returning to school or college. Using phrases such as ‘I wonder how it might feel…’ removes the interrogation type approach we so often fall into and brings a more playful quality. When we bring our own understanding of autism and the thoughts and questions of our young people together, we can explore strategies and solutions to help smooth the transition back to school. Tools such as social stories can help to support issues and worries around friendships for example.

It can be helpful for you and your child to build up links with the school. Open communication helps to provide a supportive and informed approach to meet your child’sneeds. Sharing strategy ideas and concerns between school/college and home will help to develop a team approach to creating a tailored environment for our children and hopefully reduce anxieties around school for all.

In all of this, it is important to reflect on our own wellbeing. It is as important to take care of ourselves as it is to take care of our children. A wonderful paediatric psychologist reminded me very gently many years ago that raising a child with autism was more of a marathon than a sprint. As such it needed understanding, good nutrition, rest where possible and self-care with only an occasional glass of wine. We cannot get it right every time and our best is good enough. Please do remember that the team at Dr Pablo Jeczmien’s practice are here to help along this journey. Wishing you all the very best this September.

A school classroom

Further Reading