How to Avoid "Back-to-School" Meltdowns and Tantrums

FYI to Parents: Getting ready for the new school year should start earlier when you have a youngster with ASD, or High Functioning Autism (HFA). There are so many things to plan ahead for, and people to coordinate with. You'll need to start preparing your youngster, too.

If you're like many moms and dads of kids on the autism spectrum, it's tempting to put off back-to-school preparations until the first day is just a week or so away. The resulting last-minute flurry of phone calls, errands, and meetings can be overwhelming. But this year, you can make the back-to-school process easier.

This post will focus on simple things you can do NOW to make this the best transition to the new school year ever:

1. First, brainstorm a list of everything that needs to happen with school between now and the first day of school. Get help from your spouse and/or a friend who has a youngster in the same classroom. Depending on your youngster's age and abilities, include him as much as possible in this brainstorming step. Also, highlight anything on your list involving a phone call, and start making those phone calls now. Top priority should be given to any call involving scheduling an appointment or a meeting. Calendars fill up quickly this time of year.

2. Bring your HFA youngster to the school to meet people - anybody! Introduce her to anyone available (e.g., school nurse, administrators, office staff, custodians, etc.). If possible, make arrangements in advance for your youngster's teacher(s) to be there when you visit.

3. Depending on your youngster's age and abilities, allow her to practice self-advocacy skills. Encourage her to ask questions, tell educators and staff about her classroom needs, and discuss any issues that need to be taken care of before the first day of school (e.g., a stuck locker).

4. During the last month of summer vacation, pull out some study materials and help your child get back into “study mode” (e.g., with math, vocabulary, sentences). Start daily practice with the subjects and areas she likes for a few minutes a day, increasing up to longer times and throwing in the subjects that are more difficult.  Use play time, games, videos, and swimming as rewards.  Your youngster may grumble, but her teacher will thank you.

5. For most kids on the autism spectrum, transitions are the toughest challenge.  To make matters worse, some of these young people are undergoing a MAJOR transition this school year (e.g., from preschool to kindergarten, from short days to full days, from elementary to middle school, and so on). Thus, consider creating a few social stories about some of the transitions your child is likely to face in the new school year.

6. Get back on a school-year schedule gradually. Start moving up dinnertime, bedtime, and wake-up time, so the first day of school won't be such a jolt! Also, have your HFA child help you make a morning checklist (use pictures) to help him remember everything he needs to do on a school morning after he wakes up. In addition, create a "Don't Forget" list and post it by the door with key items (e.g., backpack, books, lunch, etc.).

7. If you had your last IEP more than 3 months ago, or are planning to have it soon, now is the time to review all your old paperwork (e.g., IEPs, testing, evaluations, doctor’s visits, etc.), and see if your youngster has made any progress or regressions.  Have new concerns risen over the summer (e.g., meltdowns, aggression)? Does the plan still fit? Changes like these will affect the expectations of the fall semester school staff, and will likely necessitate calling an IEP meeting to re-review your youngster’s goals.

8. If your youngster has behavioral issues and has been home alone a lot over the summer, start setting up play dates and events to get him interacting with other kids again.  If your youngster has difficulty with social skills, getting him in a positive, safe play environment with other kids before the fall will take the edge off of his fears.

9. Schedule doctor visits for two to six weeks before school. Ensure that any medication is stable and that your youngster feels supported.

10. Stay upbeat about the approach of school and remind your youngster of the things that he liked about it.

11. The last month of summer vacation is a great time to work on a skill or two that your youngster is lacking (e.g., how to greet peers, how to dress herself, etc.).  If there is one small skill that you would like your youngster to be able to perform once school starts, create a plan for introducing that skill on a frequent basis (and remember to use a reward system that works best for your youngster along the way).

12. Review the layout of the school with your youngster. Do a tour of the building - even if he went to the same school last year. It helps get him into the school-year mindset, and also helps remind him where things are (e.g., entrances and exits, bathrooms, cafeteria, gym, nurse's office, new classroom(s), etc.). If your youngster is older, it's a good idea to get his locker number and let him practice opening the lock a few times.

A lot of children with HFA have problems in executive thinking. Executive thought processing occurs in the frontal areas of the brain and is what allows us to interpret what is happening around us, and then decide what actions to take (or not to take) in response to what we perceive. In AS and HFA kids, these brain areas - and the processes they control - are not quite in check. As a result, they often have problems rapidly assessing and interpreting change. Therefore, they may become defensive and ready to “protect” themselves from any perceived threats to their normal routines, security levels, and self-esteem.

Kids on the autism spectrum may require as much as 4 weeks to get back in a comfortable routine once they have started school. This lag in adequate classroom learning and social skills learning often leaves these students struggling as they fall further and further behind their “typical” classmates, which creates frustration, feelings of inadequacy, and builds resistance to effective learning and building strong and lasting new relationships. Thus, wise parents would do well to facilitate a “back-to-school mind-set” in their special needs child well in advance of the first day of school, rather than waiting until the last minute.
Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD
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Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

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Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

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Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

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Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

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•    Anonymous said... I've started to change my mind set but slightly anxious every year.
•    Anonymous said... Thank you for this article, thought of school starting in 3 weeks has been making me sick to my stomach. Thanks for the help!
•    Anonymous said... We have more summer meltdowns than back to school ones. He is very happy to have an all day routine again, and so is Mom!
•    Anonymous said... We have only just started the school holidays - the supermarket setting up BACK TO SCHOOL shelves fill me (the parent) with dread... Let's enjoy the holidays!

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