That time of year is here again. Well here in Australia anyway. That time of year where the kids think to themselves, round we go again. It’s time to go back to school. Different states here go back at slightly different times. The state where I reside returns this week. Some of today some tomorrow and some perhaps next week.
Our kids have had their summer holidays, their long drawn out Christmas break. Lazy days of doing whatever takes their fancy are done again for the year. The programmed fun of indoor play centres, visiting the beach or the swimming pool or travelling here there and everywhere are done too. It’s back to the day-to-day routine of early mornings, packed school lunches, bells and timetables, homework and playgrounds.
Round we go again.
Many parents are breathing a sigh of relief I am sure. But, spare a thought please, for autistic kids. It’s more than just going back. It is in fact a going back to something completely different. Sure the playground will look the same the buildings will look the same too. For some they may even happen to be returning to the same classroom. But just about everything is different.
Sure school is school and much about life in the classroom is similar. Whether it be times tables or literacy groups there is some level of sameness across year levels and across classrooms. However, it’s the little things that can make a massive difference. Especially to an autistic child where detecting those differences in communication can be that much more difficult. That extra step added to a process that is different with that new teacher. The difference in the way the group work works. That minor difference in the teacher’s implementation of a process or rule. These can be massive things for autistic kids to deal with.
There is a lot that is positive and supportive in the routine of a classroom for autistic kids. That in itself is often a good thing. It is a new routine. It is not the same routine as it was last year. Within that routine, there is always flexibility and change as is the reality of the functioning of a school. Within the safety and support of that routine is the requirement of socialisation, communication, and coping with sensory input.
All of this makes the return to school for autistic children at the beginning of a new year a significant challenge. Personally, I was reminded of this when my daughter moved from her Prep or Kindergarten year (depending what state you come from), into the first grade. She had managed her first year really well and seemed positive about the new year. However when it came to the point of starting that first day, she was very taken aback and quite stressed at the reality of the new classroom, the new group of children, the new teacher. As parents, we had not thought about it much at all expecting her to take it in her stride as she had the beginning school process. But it was quite a difficult transition for her.
Round we go again.
Another issue that is pertinent is the sensory environment. There is always the issue of noisy fluorescent lighting and low-level constant sound of computers and heating and cooling which have to again be assimilated into the experience of the children. But what is often not thought about is the impact of all the displays that are hung around the room. The complexity of the light bouncing around, the distraction of all that visual input that some autistic children are unable to filter out. All of these things are often like an assault on the autistic child’s ability to function how they are expected to within the school environment.
For any teachers who are reading, I ask you please to consider the displays you set up, the way you arrange your table groups and seating arrangements and possibility of quiet space in your classroom. Please bear in mind that behaviour is communication and that unwanted behaviour from the autistic child is most likely a response to the stimulus they are dealing with. Ask that question of what is this child telling me through this behaviour.
To my fellow parents or autistic children, I remind you that a day at school is incredibly exhausting. It is exhausting for all kids, especially so for autistic kids. The extra effort of dealing with all the social interaction, communication and sensory input. Don’t be surprised if meltdowns seem easily triggered. Give your child space and freedom to unwind or reboot, how they need to. If they need to re-energise in their rooms on their own, then so be it. If they need that extra screen time with YouTube then so be it.
Round we go again.
It’s a key time to provide support and safety for these kids to set them up for the best year they can have. To set them on course to achieve their dreams and know that they are accepted for who they are and encouraged to believe and dream of greatness.