Aspergers/HFA Students and School Anxiety

"Help! My 9 y.o. Aspergers son is suffering real bad anxiety trying to get back into the routine of school after the Christmas holidays. He is crying on and off all day at school and bedtimes, finding it hard to sleep and again crying. I feel so helpless that I can't do anything for him. Any advice would be greatly appreciated."

Aspergers (high functioning autism) children of all ages commonly experience school anxiety (i.e., school-related stress). This is often most apparent at the end of summer when school is about to start again, but it can occur year-round. This post explains school anxiety – and what can be done to help the Aspergers child become more relaxed and confident.

Social Stressors—

Many Aspergers children experience some level anxiety in social situations they encounter in school. While some of these issues provide important opportunities for growth, they must be handled with care:

• Bullies— Many schools now have anti-bullying programs and policies. Though bullying does still happen at many schools, even those with these policies, help is generally more easily accessible than it was years ago. The bad news is that bullying has gone high-tech. Many children use the Internet, cell phones and other media devices to bully other children, and this type of bullying often gets very aggressive. One reason is that bullies can be anonymous and enlist other bullies to make their target miserable. Another reason is that they don't have to face their targets, so it's easier to shed any empathy that they may otherwise feel.

• Peers— While most children would say that friends are one of their favorite aspects of school, they can also be a source of stress. Concerns about not having enough friends, not being in the same class as friends, not being able to keep up with friends in one particular area or another, interpersonal conflicts, and peer pressure are a few of the very common ways children can be stressed by their social lives at school. Dealing with these issues alone can cause anxiety in even the most secure children.

• Educators— A good experience with a caring teacher can cause a lasting impression on a youngster's life -- so can a bad experience. While most educators do their best to provide children with a positive educational experience, some children are better suited for certain teaching styles and classroom types than others. If there's a mismatch between student and teacher, a youngster can form lasting negative feelings about school or his own abilities.

Scheduling Stressors—

Many grown-ups find themselves overwhelmingly busy these days—work hours are getting longer, vacations are shortened or skipped, and people find themselves with little down time. Sadly, our children are facing similar issues. Here are some of the main scheduling stressors they face:

• Lack of Family Time— Due in part to the busyness of children’ lives and the hectic schedules of most moms and dads, the sit-down family dinner has become the exception rather than the rule in many households. While there are other ways to connect as a family, many families find that they’re too busy to spend time together and have both the important discussions and the casual day recaps that can be so helpful for children in dealing with the issues they face. Due to a lack of available family time, many moms and dads aren't as connected to their children, or knowledgeable about the issues they face, as they would like.

• Not Enough Sleep— According to a poll on this site, a large proportion of readers aren't getting enough sleep to function well each day. Unfortunately, this isn't just a problem that grown-ups face. As schedules get busier, even young children are finding themselves habitually sleep-deprived. This can affect health and cognitive functioning, both of which impact school performance.

• Over-scheduling— Much has been said in the media lately about the over-scheduling of our children, but the problem still continues. In an effort to give their children an edge, or to provide the best possible developmental experiences, many moms and dads are enrolling their children in too many extra-curricular activities. As children become teens, school extracurricular activities become much more demanding. College admissions standards are also becoming increasingly competitive, making it difficult for college-bound high school children to avoid over-scheduling themselves.

Academic Stressors—

Not surprisingly, much of the stress of school is related to what children learn and how they learn it. The following are some of the main sources of academic stress for Aspergers children:

• Homework Problems— Children are being assigned a heavier homework load than in past years, and that extra work can add to a busy schedule and take a toll.

• Learning Styles Mismatch— You may already know that there are different styles of learning -- some learn better by listening, others retain information more efficiently if they see the information written out, and still others prefer learning by doing. If there's a mismatch in learning style and classroom, or if your youngster has a learning disability (especially an undiscovered one), this can obviously lead to a stressful academic experience.

• Test Anxiety— Many of us experience test anxiety, regardless of whether or not we're prepared for exams. Unfortunately, some studies show that greater levels of test anxiety can actually hinder performance on exams. Reducing test anxiety can actually improve scores.

• Work That's Too Easy— Just as it can be stressful to handle a heavy and challenging workload, some kids can experience stress from work that isn't difficult enough. They can respond by acting out or tuning out in class, which leads to poor performance, masks the root of the problem, and perpetuates the difficulties.

• Work That's Too Hard— There's a lot of pressure for children to learn more and more and at younger ages than in past generations. For example, while a few decades ago kindergarten was a time for learning letters, numbers, and basics, most kindergarteners today are expected to read. With test scores being heavily weighted and publicly known, schools and educators are under great pressure to produce high test scores; that pressure can be passed on to children.

Environmental Stressors—

Certain aspects of an Aspergers youngster's environment can also cause stress that can spill over and affect school performance. The following are some stressors that moms and dads may not realize are impacting their kids:

• Lack of Preparation— Not having necessary supplies can be a very stressful experience for a youngster, especially one who's very young. If a youngster doesn't have an adequate lunch, didn't bring her signed permission slip, or doesn't have a red shirt to wear on "Red Shirt Day," for example, she may experience significant stress. Younger children may need help with these things.

• Lack of Sleep— As schedules pack up with homework, extracurricular activities, family time and some “down time” each day, children often get less sleep than they need. Operating under a sleep deficit doesn’t just mean sleepiness, it can also lead to poor cognitive functioning, lack of coordination, moodiness, and other negative effects.

• Noise Pollution— Believe it or not, noise pollution from airports, heavy traffic, and other sources have been shown to cause stress that impacts children' performance in school.

• Poor Diet— With the overabundance of convenience food available these days and the time constraints many experience, the average youngster's diet has more sugar and less nutritious content than is recommended. This can lead to mood swings, lack of energy, and other negative effects that impact stress levels.

Signs of school anxiety in Aspergers kids include:
  • Clinging behavior
  • Difficulty going to sleep
  • Exaggerated, unrealistic fears of animals, monster, burglars
  • Excessive worry and fear about parents or about harm to themselves
  • Fear of being alone in the dark
  • Feeling unsafe staying in a room by themselves
  • Headaches
  • Lying
  • Meltdowns
  • Negative attitude
  • Nightmares
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Severe tantrums when forced to go to school
  • Shadow the mother or father around the house
  • Stomachaches
  • Withdrawal, regressive behavior, or excessive shyness

What Can Be Done To Reduce School Anxiety In Aspergers Students? 

Here are 12 important tips:

1. Understand the value of tears. Crying can be a great stress reliever. It flushes out bad feelings and eases tension. It's hard to see your Aspergers youngster crying, and your first instinct may be to help him stop as soon as possible. But after the tears have all come out, your youngster may be in a particularly open and receptive mood for talking and sharing. Provide a soothing and sympathetic presence, but let the crying run its course.

2. Set a regular time and place for talking with your Aspergers youngster, whether in the car, on a walk, during mealtimes, or just before bed. Some Aspies will feel most comfortable in a cozy private space with your undivided attention, but others might welcome some sort of distraction to cut the intensity of sharing their feelings.

3. Routines are good. They help alleviate stress. Establishing a regular bedtime, get-up time, and bath time is important at any age. It also helps children with Aspergers learn to develop routines themselves. Family meetings are important. At the beginning of school, set a weekly time to regroup and to talk about what's going on and how it will work: who gets the shower first, what time to set the alarm clocks for. Give everybody a chance to talk.

4. Resist the urge to fix everything. There are some instances in which moms and dads do have to take action. If your youngster is in a class that's too challenging, or is having trouble because an IEP isn't being followed, there are steps you can take. If a teacher or a classmate is truly harassing your youngster, you will want to follow up with that. But you'll also want to teach her that some things in life just have to be dealt with, even though they stink. Fix only what's really badly broken.

5. Know when to get help. Most kids experience school anxiety to some extent, and some feel it more deeply and disruptively. When does it become a big enough problem to require professional help? Some signs to look for are major changes in friendships, style of clothing, music preferences, sleeping and eating habits, attitude and behavior. If you've established a good rapport with your youngster and he suddenly doesn't want to talk, that's a sign of trouble as well.

6. Keep the lines of communication open. Let your Aspergers youngster know that he can always talk to you, no matter what. It's not always necessary even to have solutions to his problems. Sometimes just talking about things out loud with a trusted adult makes them seem less threatening. And if the situation does become overwhelming for your youngster, you want to be the first to know about it.

7. Do some role-playing. Once you have some concrete examples of anxiety-provoking events, help your youngster figure out an alternate way to deal with them. Discuss possible scenarios and play the part of your youngster in some role-playing exercises, letting him play the part of the demanding teacher or bullying classmate. Model appropriate and realistic responses and coping techniques for your youngster.

8. Be aware that all students feel anxiety about school, even the ones who seem successful and carefree. Knowing this won't lessen your youngster's anxiety, but it may lessen yours.

9. Ask, "What three things are you most worried about?" Making your request specific can help your youngster start to sort through a bewildering array of fears and feelings. If he's unable to name the things that are most worrisome, have him tell you any three things, or the most recent three things.

10. Ask, "What three things are you most excited about?" Most students can think of something good, even if it's just going home at the end of the day. But chances are your youngster does have things she really enjoys about school that just get drowned out by all the scary stuff. Bring those good things out into the light.

11. Acknowledge the problem. Does hearing, "Don't worry!" help when you're anxious about something? It probably doesn't comfort your youngster much, either. The most important thing you can do for a youngster experiencing school anxiety is to acknowledge that her fears are real to her. If nothing else, you'll ensure that she won't be afraid to talk to you about them.

12. When school anxiety persists, parents should consult with a qualified mental health professional who will work with them to develop a plan to immediately return the child to school and other activities. Refusal to go to school in the older Aspergers child or teen is generally a more serious illness, and often requires more intensive treatment.

More resources for parents of children and teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism:

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