Some autistic children feel traumatised by past experiences at school. This means that thoughts and memories about past, difficult school experiences can be very hard to get rid of.
The child may live in fear that the same situation will happen again and so can’t face going to school and leaving the security of their home environment.
Examples of traumatic experiences could include:
- being forced into intolerable sensory or social situations (e.g.noisy dinner halls, working in groups, PE classes)
- being given ‘consequences’ for behaviour that the child displayed due to stress (e.g. isolation, detention)
- being shouted at by a teacher or bullied by a peer
When a child has been traumatised by any school related experiences, to reduce their trauma and increase their chances of attending school once again, the adults supporting them (parents, carers and school staff) will need to work hard to build the child’s trust back up.
Sometimes an autistic child may reach a state of overwhelm and fatigue from the effects of everyday demands and expectations, such as:
- learning and social demands that become too complicated, too much or too difficult
- an unbearable sensory environment
- worry that that they are not managing to do what is expected or keep up at the level they have managed previously
- worry that teachers or parents will think they are lazy and not trying hard enough
- hormones and puberty changes, which can make all the above challenges even more difficult to cope with
When overwhelm and fatigue take hold like this, it is often known as ‘burnout’.
When burnout happens, the person can find they have no energy or motivation for carrying out demands and expectations.
They may even find getting out of bed and getting ready for school too difficult; let alone schoolwork, homework or socialising.
Returning to school after time off due to anxiety, trauma or burnout
An autistic child who is too anxious, traumatised or burnt out to go to school will need support from trusted adults to reduce anxiety, build up confidence and energy levels, before they will be able to attend school again.
This may need to happen slowly, and in stages, with the child being in control.
For example, they may need to start with a reduced timetable, or only attending certain, preferred lessons.
Autonomy, trust and taking things at the right pace
Points to consider:
- When a child has been off school for a while, returning to school will be a step outside of their comfort-zone
- For this return to go smoothly, it is important for them to know they have autonomy and that they have trusted adults to support them at home and school
- Having autonomy means being in control. The child will need to know that they are in control of making choices – such as what they will or won’t do, how they will do it, where they will do it, when they will do it
- The child will need to know that they have adults who support them and will respect their autonomy
- Adults must reassure the child that they understand their fears and needs – and that they will do all they can to keep them safe and comfortable
- The child needs to know that they will not be pushed to be in situations outside of their comfort zone
- When any plans are made to help your child return to school, make sure your child agrees with everything and make sure all your child’s expectations are met
- If plans agreed with your child do not happen, the chances are this will make your child anxious and destroy their trust in the adults supporting them. They may become be more determined to avoid school
- Where your child does their learning may make all the difference. Your child may get on better in one school and not in another. Your child may even do better if they are home educated
There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Your child has individual strengths, difficulties and needs, and the key is working out what these are.
When a child is struggling to come out of their room and take part in any learning or socialising – whether at home and/or at school
Points for parents to consider:
- It’s hard for any parent to see their child stay in their room, stop doing the things they love, get so stressed out about things that might seem so small, and that most other children would cope with.
- It is important for you to reduce as many demands as possible (e.g. social, sensory, academic)
- One of the best things you can do is to make it very clear to your child that, for now and the foreseeable future, you are not expecting anything at all of them – except to get themselves as comfortable as possible – and that you want to help them with this
- You may be thinking that you want to get them back into school or socialising as soon as possible. However, reducing any demands and taking things in very small steps will likely have the best chance of success
- For now, it will be best to focus on meeting your child’s sensory and social needs for each moment of the day
- For example, do they need quiet, low lighting, to be left alone, to be tucked up in bed with a favourite pillow? Do they want to move, to dance, to listen to some lively music? Are their clothes comfy? Are they happy with what’s on offer to eat? Do they want to be left alone, some company or a cuddle? Do they want to talk or listen, or avoid verbal communication?
- If your child is not too emotionally dysregulated, ask them what they want, in relation to all the above sensory and social needs
- If they are struggling with their emotions, avoid asking questions or telling them what to do
- Instead, consider communicating through text message or pen/paper.
- If your child is not up for communicating at all, use your best guess to work out what they need
- Remind your child that they have autonomy and control – particularly over sensory and social situations
- Don’t give advice and suggestions unless your child agrees. Giving unwanted advice is likely to make them feel under pressure and even more unable to do things
- Your child may not want to communicate with you but may be happy to spend time with you and do something low key, with no pressure to interact. Perhaps you could watch a favourite movie together, or maybe they might look at their phone whilst you prepare dinner
- Engaging in special interests can be positive for autistic people in so many ways – such as helping with their emotional regulation, building self-esteem and confidence
- Your child may not feel like engaging in things they usually find interesting or absorbing – but if you make the main priority, reducing demands and increasing their comfort, in time they may feel more motivated
- They may have things they have enjoyed doing in the past that they want to get back into when they feel ready. They may also want to try something new?
- If your child agrees to you sharing ideas to try and help, gently suggest making a Now, Next, Later board together. This would give them the chance to make very short-term plans about what they want to do. It will also help them know what to expect.
Walk in my Shoes
A short video about an autistic teenager’s school related anxiety. Based on an original narrative by Erin Davison whose wishes for this animation are:
- To demonstrate to other young people who have had the same experience through school that they are not alone
- To help school staff understand what an autistic young person is experiencing at school and the impact of those experiences both at school and when they get home
- To raise awareness across the general public, of what a day at school can be like for an autistic young person
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