Navigating Back To School For Teens On The Autism Spectrum

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Back to school time is usually filled with shopping lists, new clothes, and meeting new teachers and classmates. For many kids this can be an exciting time. But for others, especially teens on the Autism spectrum, back to school can be filled with anxiety and trepidation. 

For teens on the Autism spectrum, change and new situations can be incredibly challenging. Even seemingly easy things like having lunch in the lunchroom can feel overwhelming when sensory and social issues come into play. Here are eight tips to help your teen prepare for back to school.

  1. Talk to Your Teen: Starting a new school year can be incredibly stressful for your teen on the Autism spectrum. The most important thing you can do to help them is to talk to them about it, and then keep talking about it. This repetition and reassurance can help alleviate some of the anxiety around not knowing exactly what will be happening when they walk into the school on their first morning.
  2. Create a Morning Routine and Practice It: Don’t wait until the first morning of school to begin a new routine. Maybe your teen has been sleeping in during the summer mornings, or maybe they’ve gotten used to being allowed to have some technology time after breakfast. If this is the case, it is important to begin transitioning to the new routine well before school starts. Once the new routine becomes “the” routine, it will make getting up and getting out of the door much less stressful.
  3. Create a Daily Schedule: Many teens on the Autism spectrum benefit from a visual schedule. A visual calendar can be just words, or words paired with pictures to help your teen understand what comes next in their day. It can be very helpful to go over the schedule every morning, even if the schedule stays the same.
  4. Have Them Read a Social Story: Social interactions, both with peers and teachers, can be very overwhelming for teens on the Autism spectrum. While you may not be able to predict how others will interact with your teen, you can help set them up for success by practicing some social stories. A social story might be a narrative about how, when they are in class, they need to raise their hand for questions instead of just blurting out the answer. An example of this might be: “When I am in class, I sit in my seat. I listen to my teacher. When I have a question, I raise my hand.” Again, this can be paired with pictures, even photos of your teen, their classroom and their teacher to make it more connected to their day. Repeating these stories helps your teen remember how the interaction should go. 
  5. Ask For Pre-School Year Meeting: Check in with your teen’s teacher to see if there is an opportunity for them to meet your child before school starts. Not only can this help your teen feel more comfortable to meet their teacher in a more calm environment, but it also gives the teacher an opportunity to get to know your teen too. You can also see if there are any opportunities for you teen to meet classmates. The more familiar faces the first day, the better. 
  6. Communicate with Your Teen’s Teacher: No matter how wonderful the teacher, chances are they have multiple students in their class who all need their help. It can be useful for you to write a letter explaining to the teacher your teen’s strengths and any areas of challenges you feel would be important for them to know. Having this list to start from can be incredibly helpful for your teen’s relationship with their teacher. 
  7. Make a Sensory Kit: If you know that your teen has sensory issues, and situations like riding a bus or being in a loud cafeteria may be challenging from them, a sensory kit could help. This would be something your teen could take with them to school. Perhaps a weighted blanket, a pair of noise-canceling headphones, or a fidget toy would help them feel more comfortable. Of course, you would want to talk to the bus driver or their teachers to make sure that this would be appropriate.
  8. Ask for Help: While you know your teen the best, you can’t be expected to think of a solution to every problem by yourself. This is where you need to create strong communication and relationships with your teen’s teacher and any other teachers who may work with them. They can tell you what they are experiencing with your teen at school, and you can tell them what you are seeing at home. Know that working with a trained professional, like a therapist can provide you with support and guidance throughout the school year.

New Focus Academy Can Help

New Focus Academy believes all teens deserve the chance to lead productive, independent lives. Our therapeutic residential program and specialized school give adolescent boys (ages 12-18) struggling with social and functional challenges a chance to gain the necessary skills to live independently. Our education is not limited to a classroom. Most children come to our school for autism already frustrated and struggling in the classroom setting. The mission of New Focus Academy is to provide differentiated instruction in a supportive environment that promotes self-determination, resiliency, and excellence in learning. Our entire curriculum is focused on Small Class Sizes where Life Skills Development and Team Projects accelerate independence and relational skills. The New Focus team uses hands-on real-world instruction to assist the students in developing skills to become independent and self-sufficient adults who can positively contribute to their community. For more information please call (435) 383-4369.