Back to school means back to routine and saying goodbye to the freedom of summer vacation. For many kids, particularly those with autism spectrum disorder combined with anxiety disorder, it can be particularly stressful and trigger tears, trouble sleeping, emotional outbursts, and other typical signs of anxiety.
Autism Speaks has a list of resources to help prepare your student for the changes back to school brings, such as creating a countdown calendar, taking a tour of the school, and meeting the child’s teacher and bus driver.
Equally as important as preparing the child is preparing yourself. “Self-care is a critical part of parenting a special needs child,” says family therapist Roy Dowdy. “All the good work you’ve done to prepare your child goes out the window if you don’t take the time to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself.”
Dowdy recommends the following tips to help parents and caregivers prepare for back to school:
Get organized. Parenting a special needs child means reams of paperwork, doctor’s appointments, and meetings. Staying on top of it all is essential in order to maintain parent’s schedules and sanity. Download apps like Cozi to track everything from medical records to IEP’s, and organize paperwork into files and folders to stay on top of documentation.
Stay up to date on special education news. Recently suggested cuts to Medicaid and updates on the Virginia waivers waiting list directly impact the programs and supports for individuals with special needs. Being informed about pending legislation, news, and events will enable parents to become better advocates for their child.
Transition to the new schedule slowly. While some students thrive in a structured environment, others struggle within a restrictive setting. Having conversations about the changes in routine can go a long way in reducing stress and frustration for both parent and child, ensuring the first days of school are as stress-free as possible for students, leading to less frustration for parents as well.
Remember you aren’t alone. One-fifth of Americans have a disability. Parenting a neurotypical child can be challenging, but even more so when parenting a child with special needs. Be intentional in finding parents who have experienced a similar journey. Simply having someone to act as a sounding board can significantly reduce parental stress.
Go in with an “Us” not “Them” attitude toward school staff. There is no question parents are a child’s best advocate, but it’s important to remember that teachers, school psychologists, and support staff are there to support individuals with special needs. Before hitting “Send,” review that email and make sure it conveys the message of respect and cooperation you intend.
Make time for yourself. Easier said than done for many parents, but carving out even 15 minutes a day for self-care allows parents to recharge, reset, and prepare for the next challenge. Dowdy suggests a simple exercise he uses with his clients with anxiety: Stop, take a deep breath and then list: “Five things I can see, four things I can hear, three things I can touch, two things I can smell, one thing I can taste.”
Finally, remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. The groundwork laid by parents and teachers during school can ensure that students with ASD face their challenges knowing they are supported, more capable than they realize, and feel empowered to live their best life.