Two boys standing in front of a school gate holding hands.
19 Jan

A back-to-school guide for autistic students

With Term 1 of the new school year fast approaching, many autistic students and their families might be feeling overwhelmed about what school this year will bring. Whether your child is in primary or high school, the transition from the free and unstructured holiday break to the busy school environment can be incredibly overwhelming, and having a plan is a must.

By considering the points below, preparing your autistic child and your family for the school year ahead will feel much less overwhelming. We’ll also share how you can address particular areas of concern that arise leading up to Term 1 or within the first few weeks of school:

  • Consider therapies
  • Academic support
  • Social challenges
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Your next steps

Consider therapies

Many autistic children and young people juggle different therapies while attending school. Although these can be challenging to fit in for both children and parents alike, they can supplement your child’s learning and growth and make school easier to navigate. Therapists might assist children with their homework or assessments or support them in developing self-advocacy and relationship skills to support their mental and social wellbeing.

The commitments and pressures of a new school year might require you to adjust your therapy schedule. This might involve moving appointments to different days and times in the week, or perhaps taking time out from therapies in the first few weeks of school while a child adjusts to their new routine. Many therapy services book out quickly, so it’s important to reach out to your provider sooner rather than later if you need to change the time or day of your appointment.  

Sometimes, children and young people can experience regression around skills and behaviours they've learnt in therapy during the school holidays. Although this can be alarming, it’s important to avoid panicking and overscheduling your child with therapies once they re-open, as this can overwhelm the child and stall progress altogether. Instead, raise your concerns with your child’s therapy team so they can adjust their approach to suit the child's pace of learning and new goals.

If your child is not able to keep themselves safe, or poses a risk to your family's safety, it's important to seek help immediately. In a crisis situation, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or emergency services on 000.

The holiday period may have also given you time to consider whether certain therapies are still working for your child. If your child’s progress has plateaued or doesn’t pick up at its usual rate in the weeks after resuming therapy, these might be signs a change is needed. Bring your concerns to your child’s therapist/s so you can have an open conversation about your observations and expectations. Your child’s therapy team might change their approach and progress will pick up again.

However, if progress still isn’t occurring, or the therapy or service is reluctant to change or address your concerns, it might be time to move on. Parents and professionals share their tips for navigating this situation confidently and respectfully:

Academic support

A new school year brings new teachers, content and classrooms, as well as new academic expectations. Autistic children and their families can find these more challenging to navigate than most, as drastic changes to routine and unfamiliar social situations can be hugely stressful.

Reaching out to your child’s classroom teacher/s is an important first step in developing a positive and productive relationship that will in turn benefit your child’s learning. It’s completely up to you to decide who to reach out to and what information to share. For example, if your child is in high school, you might decide to only contact the teachers of subjects they find challenging.

It can be difficult to know what to share with a teacher about your child, particularly if your child has recently received a diagnosis. Here are some things to reflect on and potentially flag with a teacher to help them tailor your child’s learning to best suit them:

  • What are your child’s strengths, challenges and support needs?
  • What are your child's learning goals this year? These could be goals their therapy team has set or is addressing, or more informal goals, such as being able to read a more advanced book.
  • What are modifications and strategies that have supported your child in previous years? For example, modified worksheets or more time and rest breaks during exams.  
  • What are your child’s special interests? For example, if your child dislikes creative writing but loves dinosaurs, being asked to write a story about dinosaurs might mean they are more inclined to participate in a writing lesson.
  • What are your child’s triggers (e.g., sitting next to certain students, team sport activities)?
  • What equipment will support your child’s learning and behaviour (e.g., headphones for blocking out classroom noise, text-to-speech functions on digital devices to support reading comprehension)?
  • Does your child have behaviours of concern, such as absconding or self-injurious behaviours? What strategies help de-escalate this behaviour (e.g., retreating to a quiet space)?

You might also consider reaching out to other staff members who support your child in an academic context, such as learning support staff (SLSOs) or counsellors, even if you already know them. Maintaining a positive and productive relationship with all of the staff that support your child ensures they are both informed and confident in their role, which will only improve your child’s school experience.

When reaching out to a teacher or staff member, you can share as much or as little information as you would like. There is not even an obligation for you to share your child’s autism diagnosis if you do not wish to. However, by disclosing your child’s diagnosis with their classroom teacher/s, they will have a better understanding of your child and how to foster their learning. The more information your child’s educators have, the better education they can provide.

For more tips on communicating with your child’s school, you can visit this page on Autism: What Next?

Social challenges

School is a social minefield that every student has difficulty navigating from time to time. For children with autism, school can be especially overwhelming from a social perspective, particularly at the start of a new school year when classes, playgrounds and extra-curricular activities have changed.

Your child’s classroom teacher/s can often inform you if your child knows other students in their classes. This can really alleviate your child’s anxiety. Reach out to your child’s teacher/s once you know who they are can so your child can know who they can sit next to or look out for well in advance.

Recess, lunchtimes and other times spent in the playground (e.g., before and after school) can be anxiety-inducing for autistic students. Having safe spaces to retreat to for relaxation and regulation are very important, such as the library or an empty classroom supervised by a teacher. Identifying these spaces before school begins and visiting them, especially if they are unfamiliar to your child, is a good idea.

Having activities to attend during classroom breaks is fantastic for a child’s social development and for providing that all-important structure to their day. Consider if there are co-curricular activities that align with your child’s strengths and interests, such as games clubs, as interacting with children that share their interests can be much less daunting. It’s also worth communicating with the teacher or staff member that runs this club to flag your child’s support needs, as they often won’t be your child’s classroom teacher.

Health and wellbeing

Keeping well while attending school helps children to make the most of their learning and social opportunities. As the school term becomes busy and commitments pile up, it can be easy to neglect even the simplest things that keep us healthy.

Our physical health can be tricky to maintain during the school term, for children and parents/carers alike. Getting enough sleep, following a healthy diet and doing plenty of exercise can feel all but impossible, but they are vital for a child’s growth, development and general wellbeing. For further support with eating challenges in particular, you can check out our blog on tips for making eating fun.

Health and wellbeing extend beyond the physical. Good mental health helps children to retain information, participate fully in lessons, recognise their strengths, achievements and weaknesses and have the confidence to ask for support. Mental health challenges make these core aspects of learning much more difficult, which can have long-term impacts both inside and outside of the classroom.

Here are some signs of poor mental health in autistic people:

  • Frequent feelings of worry, nervousness, and anxiety
  • Frequent feelings of sadness and depression
  • Increased irritability, anger and emotional outbursts
  • Sleep problems
  • Sudden weight or appetite changes
  • Withdrawing from people and activities they usually engage with and enjoy
  • Reduced performance at school or in other areas of life
  • Engaging in risky behaviours such as substance abuse
  • Expressing or demonstrating feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Changes in feelings and/or behaviour that cannot be explained otherwise
  • School refusal/avoidance

Some students with autism may experience poor mental health at the start of the school year that can subside as they become more familiar and comfortable with their new routine. However, this still needs to be addressed by a child’s family, school staff and therapists, as untreated mental health concerns can escalate or manifest more severely later on. You can read our post on autism and mental health to learn about support options available for your child.

Your next steps

By considering the points above, you can begin to address the common challenges and anxieties your child or family have around returning to school. Remember that transitions and routine changes often take longer for autistic people to adjust to, so be kind to yourself in the first few weeks of the term. Don’t feel pressured to take on more than you can and leave plenty of time for both you and your child to rest and recover, particularly after busier or more challenging days.   

If you and your family are new to autism, be sure to check out the ‘Schools’ section of ‘Autism: What Next?’ - our free online toolkit designed to support children who have recently received an autism diagnosis and their loved ones.  

If you think your child may be autistic, or are in the process of pursuing a diagnosis, you can check out our page on getting a diagnosis in the school years.

For further information around heading back to school, you can check out the following articles:

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