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09.24.11

Autism's Back-to-School Anxiety

Starting the school year can be tough for any kid, but for autistic children the transition presents unique difficulties. Priscilla Gilman on how she and her son rise to the challenge.

As the school year gets underway, incoming students are adjusting to a new schedule and new teachers, navigating their classes and peer groups, and generally struggling to figure themselves out. But for children on the autism spectrum, the return to the classroom can be much more complex. What are some of the unique challenges that kids with autism face during back-to-school season?

As a former college professor and the mother of a 12-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, I can attest that the transition from carefree summer to the bustle and busyness of back-to-school season can be a particularly tough time. These are harrying days for all kids, but for those on the spectrum, the challenges are more intense and different in kind. Children with autism typically struggle with novelty, and a new school year can bring an overwhelming flood of novelty—new teachers and classmates, a new physical space to become acclimated to, a new schedule and routine, new demands and expectations both academically and behaviorally.

The change in seasons also affects children on the spectrum who are acutely sensitive to temperature and textures. One mom on my Facebook page told me that her autistic son hated having to wear socks again, and another lamented having to put her daughter’s open sandals away and enclose her feet in shoes. Less outdoor and active play time as the weather gets colder leads to an increase in irritability or anxiety in all children. For those on the spectrum, the loss of therapeutic activities like swimming, water and sand play, and time in nature even more strikingly affects their functioning.

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Catherine Ledner / Getty Images

Having to go to bed and wake up earlier can be harder for autistic children, too, who tend to have disordered sleep. Pressure to move quickly and efficiently in the morning to make that school bus is all the more stressful for children on the spectrum, who may struggle with everything from feeding themselves to tying their shoes. Parents share in many of these struggles. The elaborate rituals and routines autistic children often rely on to comfort themselves—lining up toys, counting every mailbox—can wreck the best-laid plans to get to school on time. I remember both my and my son Benj’s frustration when I told him he didn’t have time to put the “S” block down after the “R” block because we “had to be at school now.”

Once in school, the children are confronted with a flood of confusing and potentially upsetting stimuli.

Once in school, the children are confronted with a flood of confusing and potentially upsetting stimuli. One autistic teen told me that getting used to new faces is especially challenging for her: “I have to learn how to decode the expressions.” Another said that the pitch, volume, and timbre of a slew of new voices always take a good deal of getting used to. Bells signaling the end or beginning of classes, whistles, and fire alarms are all new and aversive noises to children who suffer from acute sound sensitivity. We’ve often come to school to walk Benj through fire drills, and whenever there’s a new gym teacher, we’ve asked him or her to warn Benj before blowing a whistle. 

Problems can arise with teachers who aren't specially trained to handle autism. Ronald Leaf, a psychologist and director of Autism Partnership, located in Seal Beach, Calif., consults extensively with school districts throughout the United States. "These children are walking into a situation where they're faced with teachers and aides who have not received the necessary training," he told me. "It's chaotic, their routines have changed, there is a lack of consistency with the previous year, different kinds of curriculums. Invariably it's lack of training that is the biggest issue. It's not lack of caring, it's simply not knowing what to do."

Children with autism often can’t recount their experiences or express their feelings with ease and clarity, so parents can be at a loss to understand what their child is going through, and issues don’t get resolved as quickly as they would were the child able to report them immediately. Some years I’ve thought Benj was settling into school well only to be surprised by a call from a teacher announcing that he was in fact having serious trouble; in others, he’s seemed jumpy and worried at home but relatively calm to his teachers. And for parents of nonverbal autistic kids, the back-to-school period can be a very scary time as they wonder how their child is faring and can’t elicit any information at all from them.

And yet, there are some ways in which the back-to-school season is actually easier for children on the spectrum than for their neurotypical peers. Being back in school, with a regular schedule, clear expectations, and a calendar of events can be a huge relief after the unstructured, open-ended nature of summer. And being relatively impervious to peer pressure can protect these children from some of the typical back-to-school anxieties. One mother laughingly recounted, “My son has never worried about what to wear on the first day of school!” Another told me what a relief it was that her son didn’t insist on an expensive backpack like the ones his friends had.

Although every new school year has brought a flurry of calls and emails from the school expressing concerns or seeking my input, the most difficult periods in my parenting life have come when Benj has begun at a new school: his first year of preschool, in first grade, and last year when he began at a new middle-high school. During each of these adjustment periods, there has been a sense of crisis, a pervasive urgency for the first few months of school. I discuss this at length in my recently published memoir The Anti-Romantic Child.

But through extensive discussions involving all of Benj’s team (parents, therapists, teachers), the teachers have always eventually figured out ingenious ways to reach Benj through his strengths and to use those strengths to address his weaknesses. Every year, as Benj initially struggles, I put current teachers in touch with previous ones, I share reports on and evaluations of Benj, information about hyperlexia (the specific form of autism he has), and I help educate the teachers about what works best for my individual child.

Amazingly enough, as I was finishing this piece, I received the following email from a school administrator who has known Benj since first grade:

Hi, Priscilla,

Just wanted to let you know that Benj is off to a really great start this year! I am SOOOO proud of him! It’s all I can do to resist fawning all over him and giving him lots of recognition, so I’m writing to you instead! Love that boy!!

In saying that she was resisting fawning over him, this administrator demonstrated her respect for Benj’s unique temperament—he shies away from compliments and hates standing out for his talents and accomplishments—at the same time that she expressed what all parents want most for their child: to be not only tolerated but understood, appreciated, and loved.

I am profoundly grateful for the teachers, administrators, and schools that have taken the time to learn more about both autism and my quirky son. Their patience, compassion, and open-mindedness can inspire us all.