New teachers, new classrooms, new classmates — all of this “new” can add up to back-to-school anxiety for your child with autism. And anxiety isn’t uncommon for kids on the autism spectrum, says Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven, a Madison Heights ABA therapy center for children and teens.
“Studies show that the fear center of the brain is enlarged for kids on the spectrum, and they tend to have more anxiety than the average child,” says Dr. Thomas. Fear and anxiety can increase if the child has deficits in communication, language and understanding.
Anxiety can disrupt an otherwise smooth transition from the relative freedom of an unscheduled summer to a more structured daily school routine, and children can display anxiety in a variety of ways, Dr. Thomas says. She suggests that, in addition to changes in eating and sleeping patterns, any out-of-character behavior a parent notices in their child may be a sign of back-to-school anxiety.
“For some children, the way anxiety manifests itself is repetitive question asking,” she says. When is school starting? Is my friend going to be in class? Who will my teacher be? What about my para-pro? “These repetitive questions can be challenging for a parent.”
Other children may show repetitive behaviors like making sure all the doors are closed or the lights are turned off or the pillows on the bed are arranged just so. “Children can’t always express that they’re experiencing anxiety, so they may increase repetitive behaviors in an attempt to control their environment,” Dr. Thomas explains. “It can help bring them control over their world and that calms them a bit.” An increase in self-stimulating behaviors like rocking and hand flapping can also be a sign of anxiety.
Practical tips for back-to-school anxiety
Parents can help their child calm back-to-school anxiety, so don’t be afraid to use this final month of summer to help your child process their feelings and conquer their fears and anxieties. Some techniques, particularly mindfulness and relaxation practices, can even be used broadly to ease anxieties related to everyday life, so they’re worth helping your child master and retain in their coping strategies toolbox.
Young children, in particular, respond well to social stories, says Dr. Thomas. “This is a book that describes what they can expect at school. It’s nice if you can make it yourself because you’ll make it specific to your child,” she says.
Through your social story, you can help your child visualize waking up in the morning, having breakfast, brushing their teeth, getting dressed and getting on the bus for school. You can also extend the social story to include the routines of the day, including circle time, recess and lunchtime.
Older kids may enjoy looking through last year’s yearbook to see familiar faces and remind themselves of the routine of the school day. “This really helps with the need for predictability and expectations,” Dr. Thomas explains.
“Make your own calendar too and have a countdown, if that helps. But also fill your calendar with things to do, because when children are busy, they tend not to think about things too much. It’s helpful if they can see friends and have playdates in the park because that can bridge the gap in time and ease anxiety about whether or not someone will still be their friend,” she says. “That reassurance that friends are still there is solid and positive.”
Shopping together for your child’s favorite back-to-school items can be helpful, too. Your child can select a new backpack and lunchbox and include fidget-spinners or seat cushions, if they are permitted in your child’s class. “You can create a pack of go-to items to help your child feel calm in the moment,” Dr. Thomas suggests.
Over the summer, social activities should be prioritized over time spent with technology. “Have friends over or go to a class to learn how to make something. Don’t further remove your child from social activities because social skills need to be practiced,” Dr. Thomas says. “The world isn’t like a video game, which provides a high rate of stimulation. The real world is boring compared to that, and children will find it hard to maintain focus and eye contact in school if their brains’ are used to a high rate of visual and auditory stimulation from screen time. Children shouldn’t have access to too much technology over the summer — and parents can help by modeling social interactions over using technology.”
Relaxation techniques for a lifetime
In addition to practical tips for easing back-to-school anxiety, parents can help their child learn mindfulness and relaxation techniques. “We love to help our children build a relaxation toolbox, so we teach as many techniques as we can,” Dr. Thomas says. “This can include sensory stimulation, breathing, visual imagery, meditation and journaling, depending on where a child is in their development and skill level.”
Even little children can practice mindfulness with a game of I-Spy. Or practice mindful touching by putting an item in a bag and inviting your child to feel it, then point to the picture of the item they feel.
“Mindful walking and mindful smelling — all of these can bring you to the present moment where there is no stress. It’s thinking about the future and worrying about the future that brings stress,” Dr. Thomas says, adding that all of these activities can be verified by observation by the parent, which is important for children who don’t have the language to report mindful thinking or mindful breathing.
For children who have attained more skills, journaling is an effective mindfulness activity. “Big Life Journal is a favorite for kids and teens because it’s based on building a growth mindset and teaches you that you can do it, you just need to learn how to overcome obstacles. It’s a wonderful resource for kids and families,” she says.
Younger children can even learn to journal by drawing pictures or coloring, which is a powerful way to process anxiety, Dr. Thomas says. “The feelings change their function when you put them on paper and in therapy, this is very successful. You’re essentially exposing yourself to the feeling so the emotional response decreases over time and this is powerful in general for any anxiety,” she explains.
If chaotic environments raise anxiety levels, Dr. Thomas suggests practicing mindfulness and relaxation in novel locations to help practice being successful in navigating high-stress environments like school hallways and cafeterias. “Help your child try to replicate being calm at the mall or grocery store or other noisy locations by counting to 10, squeezing their hands into fists and then releasing, or even just listening to calming music, water running or leaves rustling with noise-canceling headphones,” she says.
Sometimes parents need to think outside the box to figure out and use whatever input is most calming to their child — whether it’s the sound of birds singing, the scent of lemons or the feel of cool air on their face.
When you can support your child with practical tools to help them cope with anxiety, you’re doing more than solving an immediate problem — you’re helping them positively rewire their brain to be less likely to overreact, says Dr. Thomas. “Research shows that if you do use tools for mindfulness and relaxation, you can change the brain and actually reduce the fear center.”
Learn more about unique ABA therapy for children and teens at Healing Haven in Madison Heights. Visit thehealinghaven.net.