How to Reduce School-Related Anxiety in Students on the Autism Spectrum

“My daughter with high functioning autism is always anxious in the mornings before school to the point where it has become quite a chore to get her out the door and on the bus (lots of weeping, complaining about her stomach hurting, talking about wanting to just stay home…). Would you have some ideas on how I can help her not be so stressed about going to school?”

Here are a few important tips that can help children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) to reduce their anxiety as it relates to school:

1.  Acknowledge your daughter’s fear. Hearing "it’ll be O.K." when you're anxious about something doesn’t usually help. It probably won’t comfort your daughter much, either. The most crucial thing you can do for a youngster dealing with school-related anxiety is to accept that her fears are real to her. If nothing else, you'll guarantee that she won't be scared to talk to you about them.

2.  Ask, "What three things are you most happy about?" Most kids can think of something positive, even if it's lunch or just going home after school. Chances are your daughter has things she enjoys about school that just get drowned out by all the spooky stuff. Bring those positive things out into the light.

3.  Also ask, "What three things are you most afraid of?" Making your request specific can help your daughter sort through a confusing array of emotions. If she can’t name the things that are most troublesome, have her tell you any three things (or the most recent three things).

4.  Remember that all kids feel some stress about school, even the ones who seem popular and happy-go-lucky. Knowing this won't alleviate your daughter's stress, but it may alleviate yours.

5.  Role-play. Once you have some specific examples of stress-provoking events, help your daughter discover an alternate way to cope with them. Discuss possible scenarios and play the part of your daughter in some role-playing exercises, letting her play the part of the difficult teacher or bullying peer. Model appropriate and realistic responses and coping strategies for her.

6.  Let your HFA child know that she can always talk to you, no matter what. It's not always required even to have solutions to her difficulties. Sometimes just talking about things out loud with a loving parent makes them seem less intimidating. If the situation does become too much for your daughter to handle, you want to be the first to know about it.

7.  Know when to get step in and assist. Most kids experience school-related stress to some degree, and some feel it more intensely. When does it become a big enough issue to require professional help? Some signs to look for are major changes in friends, sleeping and eating habits, and attitude and behavior. If you've developed a good rapport with your daughter and she suddenly doesn't want to talk about what’s going on at school, that's a red flag too.

8.  Don’t try to fix everything. There are some cases in which moms and dads do have to take action. For example, if your daughter is being bullied or is having trouble because an IEP isn't being followed, there are steps you should take. But you'll also want to teach your daughter that some things in life just have to be dealt with, even though they suck. Correct only what's really badly broken.

9.  Routines help alleviate stress. Creating a regular bedtime, wake-up time, and bath time is important at all ages. It’s also important that “special needs” kids learn to develop routines for themselves.

10.  Set a regular time and place for talking with your youngster (e.g., in the car, on a walk, during mealtimes, just before bed, etc.). Some kids on the autism spectrum will feel most comfortable in a comfy private space with the parent’s undivided attention, but others may welcome some sort of distraction to reduce the intensity of sharing their emotions.

11.  Understand the value of crying. It’s a great anxiety reliever and flushes out negative feelings. It's hard to see a child crying, and the parent’s first instinct may be to help her stop as soon as possible. But after the tears have all come out, your daughter may be in a particularly receptive mood for sharing what’s going on inside her. Offer a comforting and supportive presence, but let the tearfulness run its course.

12.    Family meetings are very important. Set a weekly time to regroup and to talk about what's going on and how it will work (e.g., who gets the shower first, what time to set the alarm clocks for, etc.). Also, give everyone a chance to have their input.  

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