Tips for Transitioning Kids on the Autism Spectrum Back to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Debra Reicher, PhD, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist with our Clinical Autism Program. 

Returning to school is one of the many concerns children and families are coping with during the COVID-19 pandemic. While parents of children with autism may be particularly concerned due to many children’s inherent difficulty with transition and change, there is some good news. Children with autism thrive on routine and establish new routines rather quickly.

The following tips may be useful to help parents ease into the back to school transition process:  

·       Manage your own anxiety. Remember, it can be contagious. The attitude and tone of our communication with children is as important as the message conveyed. It’s essential that adult anxiety and frustration with the reopening of school be carefully monitored as children will respond to this. Adults’ ability to cope with uncertainty directly impacts children’s’ ability to cope. Communicate with your school so you are aware of the specific procedures. Practice self-care and communicate frustration to other adults when there are no children around.

·       Reestablish bedtime and waking routines as soon as possible. If your child has been staying up late and/or sleeping in, gradually adjust the time they go to sleep and wake up so that it aligns with the school schedule. Have your child get dressed, eat breakfast, etc. upon waking and start to follow a bedtime routine again as soon as possible.

·       Take your children on outings. It’s important that they get used to wearing a mask (if that’s expected) and seeing others with masks.This can be disconcerting for children who have not been out much. Desensitize your child by playfully wearing masks at certain times in the home and having them do the same. Allow your child to pick out their own masks based on comfort and appearance. Take a drive to the school and walk around outside to familiarize your child with the setting.

·       The developmental level and chronological age of your child is important to consider. With younger children, concrete and simple explanations are preferred. Avoid abstract language and over-explaining. Listen carefully to your child’s specific concerns and tailor your response to them.

·       Cross off dates on the calendar. This is a great way to countdown to the first day of school.  

·       Establish a new and predictable routine to help lessen anxiety. Prepare your child for the new rules regarding social distancing, masks and hand washing by providing detailed written and visual information. Ask your child’s school for photographs and/or provide a video tour of the way the school will look. Include pictures of the hallways, the classrooms (desks far apart, dividers), etc. Explain the procedures at school such as temperature checks and cleansing in addition to specials and lunch. The following social story may be useful to read as it explains many of the aspects of the new school routine:

·      Use social stories and photographs as reminders. If your child is taking the bus, a social story or photographs of the procedure and routine may be helpful.

·       Request a visual meeting with the teacher prior to the first day of school. Ask your child’s school if the teacher could set up a virtual meeting prior to opening. Younger children benefit from short, individual, and personalized meetings with teachers where feasible. This provides an opportunity for teachers to introduce themselves without a mask. This can be done in small groups for older children. 

·      Be sure your child is clear about the days of school and remote learning. If your child is part of a hybrid model, post a calendar that indicates which days they'll be at school or at home, in addition to the childcare situation on each day if it varies. 

·      Listen empathically and non-judgmentally. Children do better with change when given a place to express feelings. Focus on the things we can control and what we can do to stay safe. Remind children that things will eventually return to normal, but in the meantime, this is the new normal, and our concern is the present. 

·       Be creative in developing ways for your child to socially interact. Outdoor activities such as walks bike riding and the playground can be fun. Online games and video games also have an interactive and social component to them. 

·       Enlist the mental health professionals if your child seems to be struggling to adjust. Post-traumatic stress signs include intrusive, unwanted thoughts or images, strong negative feelings, excessive anxiety, behavioral regression, sleep difficulties, separation anxiety, attention difficulties, somatic concerns and arousal, and reactivity symptoms such as startling easily. While most children are likely to adjust to the changes, it’s essential to quickly identify those who are struggling, so that proper support and referrals can be made.