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Preparing for a new school year – ways to support your autistic girl

A green school backpack, with pencils and notepads.

It’s past the half-way mark in the summer holidays, and our thoughts are turning to the transition back into school in a few weeks’ time. Transitions can be anxiety-inducing for autistic children, particularly at the start of a new school year, with changes of teachers, classrooms, and in some cases, school as well. If your autistic girl is showing signs of anxiety about the new term, just remember that this is not unusual and she is not alone.

Here are a few ways in which we have coped with this transition period:

Visual cues

Have a chart showing how much of the holiday is left – often it can feel like there’s no time left to do fun things when actually there is.

Keep something fun to do at the end

Plan a fun activity to do together in the last few days of the holidays. My daughter and I often have a day out during the last day or so of the holidays – this gives something to look forward to at the end of the holidays and also takes the focus off the new term for a few hours. It doesn’t have to be a big trip to a theme park or something – we have often enjoyed a trip into town or to the aquarium, or a picnic at Westonbirt Arboretum. We usually choose somewhere familiar so that the trip itself isn’t a cause of stress and we know where we are going and what it will be like.

Try not to leave all of the ‘back to school’ preparations until the very end of the holidays.

This can be a tricky one, particularly with school uniform and shoes, as you don’t want them growing out of the new things before term has even started. But doing one or two small things per week, interspersed with fun things, is much easier for autistic children to cope with as it reduces the feeling that something big is looming. I shop online as much as possible (obviously this doesn’t work for shoe fitting and haircuts!) as it means that I can accumulate all that is needed with the minimum of fuss for my daughter. I also try to do the name-tape sewing when she is in bed (partly because I find it stressful and boring, and my daughter is very good at ‘catching’ the emotions of those around her!)

On a related note, try to make a fitting appointment at your local shoe store rather than walking in and waiting. We usually use Charles Clinkard in the Mall at Cribbs Causeway, as they offer appointments via their website, but you may have a more local store that it willing to offer a similar service. I ensure that I mention on the booking that R is autistic, as it can help her feel less overwhelmed once we are there. During the appointment I bring her ear defenders and something to do so that she is not stressed by the inevitable waiting whilst they try to find shoes in her size from the back room.

For haircuts, we have discovered an amazing mobile hairdresser who used to be at EK Hair. Nessa is fantastic with autistic children, and more information can be found on her Little Snips Facebook page. We have found it so much more relaxing having our hair cut at home.

Make time for her to talk

If she is showing signs of anxiety, try asking your girl about what is worrying her. She may not be able to identify that she is anxious, or what in particular is the matter, but knowing that you have noticed and want to help will help her to feel supported. If she is unable to put it into words, you might like to try other means of expression. Perhaps she would feel better drawing a picture or picking music that describes her thoughts. Be prepared to have multiple conversations as she processes and understands her feelings, particularly if there is a problem at school that needs resolving in some way.

A red pencil draws a line across a page full of coloured pencil swirls
Drawing or doodling can be a great stress reliever

Last summer our daughter went through two weeks of intense anxiety, involving physical symptoms, before the start of the school year. We were not able to discuss it with the school until term started, but we were able to help alleviate her tummy pains with a warm hot water bottle, and we did our best to reassure her when she had trouble sleeping at night. To be honest, we struggled along with her, as her sleeping issues became our sleeping issues too. But it did eventually pass once term started and we were able to open a dialogue with the school about some of the things that they could do to help to improve the situation.

Email the school

If there are issues that need to be raised with the school – e.g. accommodations that you believe would benefit your daughter, or a difficulty she is having socially with her classmates, I would personally email the school even at this point in the holidays to ask for a meeting at the start of term to discuss. Although most school office staff are term-time only, at least the email will be waiting for them. You could then follow up with a phone call once they go back. It may help your girl to feel that you are trying to get something in place for her if she knows that you have been in touch with the school about it. This in turn may help her to feel a bit more positive about the start of term.

Talk with her about what she knows about her new classroom or teacher

For moving to a new class within the same school, you could ask your daughter about the new classroom. Where in the school is it? What does it look like inside? You could also try asking about her new teacher (if she knows them – obviously if it is a teacher who is new to the school then it is best not to have this conversation with your girl in case it makes her more anxious about the unknown). Perhaps it would help your girl to feel better about going back by her choosing a new pencil case, or pencils, or something that she is allowed to use in school that she likes. My daughter changed schools part-way through the last academic year and she found it really exciting that she had to have her own pencil case and pencils for the first time, rather than using the communal school stationery.

It may also help to look on the school website to see if you can find photos of the school buildings, classrooms, staff, etc. This is particularly helpful if there is going to be a change of school, even if your girl has visited the school and looked around. A lot of anxiety is caused by a fear of the unknown, so if you can lessen the unknown element by whatever means, it may help somewhat.

When my daughter was preparing to change schools, we looked at the website to see what the teachers looked like, and to check what the uniform was like. The uniform photos were particularly useful as my daughter has hypermobile fingers and has difficulty with buttons – something which we were able to identify as a potential issue for her when we saw the photos. It resulted in my suggesting to the school that I adapt her uniform to look the same but to be easier for her to manage with hidden poppers on the blouses and skirts. She felt much more confident about herself knowing that she would be able to manage when changing for sport or swimming, but also knowing that she looked the same as everyone else.

Meet up with a friend

Finally, if your girl has a particular friend at school, try to arrange for her to see the friend before the start of term, so that she is reminded of a positive thing about school. This is especially important if she is feeling overwhelmed with negative expectations about the start of term, and it might be that her friend is feeling a similar way. If nothing else, hopefully it will take her mind off school and give her a chance to enjoy herself.

I hope that you and your girl have a happy transition into the new school year.

Laura Webb is a director of NeonDaisy


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