We’re nearing that wonderful time of the year again when our kids return to school. As the parent of an autism spectrum child, I’m not sure which is more challenging—attempting to create structure for a child during the summer months or trying to get the child back into a new routine at the start of a school year. Either way, one thing is for certain: Just like everything else in the world of autism, it requires more time, patience, and effort.
There are a lot of excellent articles on the Internet about how to help your child make a smooth transition back to school. Most of them contain some great, practical reminders about getting things ready the night before, visiting the classroom ahead of time, and creating a social story to help your child prepare. But moms and dads need preparation time as well. So, here are a few tips to get you, the parent, mentally and emotionally ready:
- Plan ahead as a family. Decide ahead of time who will be involved in helping the kids get ready for school in the morning. When my children were younger, I supervised the morning routine, while my husband supervised bath and bedtime. This worked well with our schedules and ensured that each of us had some down time. However, as the kids got older and I returned to work, this became more difficult. My husband and I now both help our 15-year-old son get ready in the morning and we have it down to a science. This ensures that neither of us becomes resentful over having to do it every day, and it sends a message to my son that we are both involved in helping him succeed.
- Put your oxygen mask on first. You’ve heard it before from me, but it bears repeating: Self-care is NOT an option, it is a necessity. Getting up a few minutes earlier to get in some exercise time, prayer, or meditation, or even just a simple cup of coffee, can give you more emotional energy for whatever comes next. Also, get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Proper amount and quality of sleep is absolutely crucial to our mental and physical health.
- Let go of perfectionism. Everything cannot go smoothly every day. Let’s just accept that fact right now so we’re not disappointed when the alarm doesn’t go off or your child refuses to put on his shoes. Being a few minutes late for school once in a while is not a crime—it means you’re human like the rest of us. Give yourself a break. If you struggle in this area, find a counselor or therapist who can help you.
- Decide ahead of time how you will respond to resistance. As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, you can plan on meeting with resistance. It’s true that structure and predictability will make a morning routine run smoothly, but sometimes even the best-laid plans can go awry. One Monday morning as the bus slowed to a stop in front of my house and I stood up to accompany my son to his yellow chariot, he suddenly decided he was not getting on the bus. He just wouldn’t budge. No amount of coaxing, bribing, threatening, or even physically pulling was going to change his mind. We tried for three days straight, with no luck. What made it worse was my reaction. The angrier and more frustrated I became, the more aggravated he became and the less he was able to leave me. I was left with a choice: I could drive my kid to school being angry and frustrated, or I could drive my kid to school being calm. Either way, I was driving my kid to school. So for the remainder of the school year, we changed our routine and I drove him to school. It actually became a time for us to bond and listen to music together, and taught me that the only thing I can truly control is my own reaction. Our kids know how to push our buttons. But we get to decide if we’re going to allow those buttons to produce a reaction.
- Be fully present with your child. It’s incredibly difficult for children on the autism spectrum to filter out external sounds, smells, and noises, so limit distractions as much as possible. Keep the TV off during the morning rush. Keep your phone off, or at least silent, and don’t take any calls while you’re trying to assist your child with his or her morning routine. Practice being fully present with your child, even during times when you’re not in a rush to get out the door. Kids with autism may not initiate engagement, but that doesn’t mean they want to be ignored.
Wishing you a happy, healthy, and imperfectly wonderful school year!
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