Troubleshooting the Refusal to Attend School in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
For a child with ASD, school can be a scary place. There is a lot of sensory information being thrown at the child from what feels like all angles, a high level of social interaction is required, and unstructured times (such as between classes, or at recess) can leave the child feeling lost. As such, many children with ASD develop a strong resistance to attending school, and owing to the rigidity of those with ASD, it can be very hard to convince the child to do otherwise.
No parent enjoys sending their child to a place he or she hates, and every parent wants their child to succeed at school, and to enjoy it as much as possible. To that end, it’s important not to give up on the concept of a child with ASD enjoying school; instead, if your child is resisting school attendance, try the following strategies to get him or her turned around to the idea of school again:
Try to discover why the child does not wish to attend school; remember that bullying is a common experience for those with ASD, due to their socially awkward behaviour. Always begin by making sure the child is not being picked on. Also check for:
- Unstructured times being a subject of stress and confusion.
- A specific unpleasant event which the child may now be avoiding, but has been unable to vocalize (or possibly even able to identify that he or she is so upset about it). Remember that even minor events may seem very confusing or upsetting to someone with ASD.
- A lesson or class the child is struggling with. He or she may have become so frustrated at not getting it that the entire idea of school has become upsetting.
- If your efforts come up empty, contact the school to see if any of the staff have observed something that may have motivated the child’s resistance.
If your child is having a difficult time expressing his or herself, you may want to use visual supports to facilitate communication.
Strategies to Try at Home
There are many things that can be done within the home environment to encourage a child with ASD to go to school. These include:
-The presence of structure at home.
Calendars and timetables that revolve around school, showing the child which days are schooldays and which are weekends, depicting when holidays and school events will occur, etc., is an excellent way to make school feel more like a safe part of the child’s routine. Allow the child plenty of time in the morning to get ready, and plenty of time after school to just relax and wind down. Break down tasks that are needed to get ready for school into a series of steps so they are easier to understand.
-Incorporate a reward system.
Rewards the child can understand, such as visual aids (stars on a chart, tokens he or she can collect, etc.) or more time spent with a favourite hobby can go a long way toward encouraging a child with ASD to attend school.
-Remember to take “baby steps”.
Children with ASD are very easily overwhelmed, so one negative experience can create a lot of lasting resistance. If something bad has happened to the child at school, you may need to get him or her used to the idea of school again in very small steps, such as starting with just getting ready for school in the mornings, then to driving to school, then trying a morning class, etc. Reward each step as it is successfully managed by the child, and never “push” for more than the child can handle.
-Get the child used to school while it’s quiet.
Consider taking the child for a walk or drive around the school when school is not in session, so that he or she can warm up to the concept without getting overloaded by stimuli. Reward these efforts as well.
-Explain why school is important.
Children with ASD cope better with having to do new things when they get the logical “whys” behind them. As such, it’s vital the child fully understand why school is important and how it will help in later life.
-Make sure the child has access to an ASD-literate counsellor.
Older children (those around 8 and above) often benefit from talking to someone who knows ASD and can understand what they are going through and suggest solutions that will work for them in managing anxiety and frustration.
Getting Support at School
As consistency is so essential to the comfort and performance of those with ASD, it’s important to make sure the school your child attends is on the same page with the caregivers at home, and offers sufficient support for children with ASD. Here are some methods you can suggest to your child’s school to help your child get the most out of his or her school experience:
-Ask someone to meet the child at the beginning of school.
Find someone that your child feels at ease with, and consider having him or her lead the child from the car or school entrance into class every day. This will make the environment feel more structured and calm than the child would perceive it if navigating such a busy environment alone.
-Ask for in-class support.
Children with ASD often perform better if they have an “assistant” of some kind nearby to help guide them through their in-class activities.
-Make sure the child can have “time outs”.
Children with ASD need to have it understood that sometimes they simply need to leave the room, take a break, or engage in a soothing behaviour in order to deal with the school environment.
-Educate the staff if need be.
If a staff member who deals with your child is not knowledgable about autism, provide material so he or she can learn how to better manage and help your child. If your child is comfortable with it, you may also suggest educating his or her peers, such as by showing a video of a successful adult with ASD in order to de-stigmatize the condition.
-Encourage emotional insight.
Try to get your child into the habit of talking about his or her feelings at the end of the school day; if he or she struggles to express emotions verbally, make use of visual aids that help the child to “rate” his or her experience.
-Draw on the child’s special interests.
Children with ASD tend to be strongly attached to their special interests, so if you can work a bit of them into each lesson, the child will become much more willing to pay attention to the lesson (e.g. working an interest in drawing or trains into math problems, or science lessons.)
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