We here at the One Stop Shop Aberdeen and Triple A’s are dedicated to helping people develop their knowledge and understanding of autism.
Drawing on our own lived experiences of being autistic, the professional experiences of our staff members who have worked with autistic children and teens as a teacher and PSA, as well as our experiences of parenting autistic children, we offer insight into what it is like to be autistic, and how to support other autistic people.
The following has been written in collaboration with our staff, other autistic people, secondary and primary school teachers and parents. While this document does not cover all the information we could share about autism, it looks at some of what we feel is some of the most important information to be aware of right now with the transition back into school.
If there is anything you would like more support with, or more information about, please contact us to let us know. firstname.lastname@example.org
Transitioning Autistic Pupils Back to School
The transition to school post lockdown is likely to be hard for all pupils, but autistic people can face additional challenges.
This is for many reasons, and we should consider that these pupils have had a prolonged period of time:
- with minimal socialising
- a sensory minimal environment compared to school
- where they may not have felt the need to mask
- with higher or lower anxiety than usual
- with potentially no school work or school work done at a different pace
- potentially 1:1 support from parents to complete work
- just focusing on areas of interest
- not eating school meals and potentially a more restricted diet due to lockdown
- with more time on devices
- not wearing school uniform
- with a more flexible routine reacting to their needs
Getting used to increased socialising, increased sensory input, and all the other factors above are likely to be very stressful. There will also be autistic students who have lost friends and/or family members to Covid 19 as well or have been living in a highly stressed household with little to no respite from parents and/or siblings too.
Some autistic students will be eager to get back to school. Some will really struggle with that transition even if they are desperate to return, especially if they have a new teacher, a new classroom or even a new school.
Many autistic adults report concerns about being deskilled in many areas, like socialising, which may make the transition out of lockdown even more anxiety provoking than being in lockdown itself.
Key Points to Consider
Here are some key points to consider when planning the return:
Sensory Appropriate Environment
If a sensory appropriate environment was important before, it is vital now. Having spent a significant amount of time not having to deal with even low level classroom noise, it will be a difficult time getting used to even half a class worth of noise.
Use the sensory appropriate environment checklist, document 3 as part of this return to school pack, to ensure it will be appropriate to their sensory needs. Ideally this should be completed with input from the pupil and their family as not all adjustments will be necessary for every pupil. Be aware as well that some sensory sensitivities may have changed, particularly if the pupil is going through puberty.
If classes have to be split up to ensure social distancing, make sure that your autistic students have some key friends/classmates they get on well and work well with. Those key friends may be in a different class or year group.
Be aware autistic pupils may not be as comfortable socialising at break and lunch time as they were before. They may need to be able to access quieter areas such as a library or quieter part of a playground to allow them time to process the social contact in class. Going from socialising with nobody out with family to even 14 other pupils all at once is a huge jump.
There will be heightened anxiety about the change in routine back to school. Relaxed mornings and learning from home in your tracksuit is very different from the usual morning rush to get to school. Those increased demands will take time to adjust to.
Meltdowns, shutdowns, and elopement will all be more likely, even with the smoothest of transitions. This can lead to autistic burnout. Please read - Meltdowns, Shutdowns and Elopement; Transitioning Autistic Pupils Back to School, document 2 as part of this return to school pack, to brush up on the causes of crisis points as well as how to deal with them.
Give as much information as possible about the transition in advance. Which class(es), which teachers, which PSAs, who will be in their class(es), photographs of unknown members of staff and any new rooms, videos where possible. If social distancing measures are being put into place in classrooms, provide lots of information about how that will work.
Many autistic people need more information to feel comfortable than non-autistic people, so be patient if the family comes back with more questions and answer them as soon as you can. Explain why these changes are happening too, and let the children know all the efforts are being done to keep them safe.
Presenting More Autistically
Many autistic adults have reported that they are presenting more and more autistic traits during lockdown. This is partly due to not having to mask, and also increased anxiety. You may notice some differences in how your autistic pupils present and/or behave.
Increased social anxiety due to new rules about socialising. There are going to be many changes in how we interact with others, and these new social rules may be ones your autistic pupils will be more comfortable with – less physical contact may be a good thing for them, but conversely it may be something they might struggle with. Sometimes autistic people choose not to socialise as they feel it is better than making a social mistake, so be clear about what you are expecting in the way of social distancing.
Communicating more autistically – this is partly due to not having to mask, and also increased anxiety. This may mean interrupting more than usual, talking at length about areas of interest, or talking a lot about their own experiences. Very often when autistic people interrupt to share a personal story, it’s to show empathy – I relate to what you are saying because I went through it too – as opposed to one-up-manship.
Autistic communication styles are different, but they are a valid way of communicating. Bear in mind that your pupil may have different motivations for communicating the way they do than you might expect. Mutism may be more common as well.
Stimming is a self stimulatory behaviour which is usually repetitive. Fairly commonly, stimming can be flapping hands, vocalising, tapping a pen, spinning, twirling hair. It has many functions including emotional regulation, sensory regulation, aid concentration and memory recall, and general fun.
Many autistic people stim more frequently than non autistic people, and it is important that they are allowed to do so. If the pupil is worried about stimming in front of class mates, allowing them space to do so when needed will help, but where possible, normalising stimming is ideal. Many autistic people, including adults, use various stim toys to help themselves stay regulated. These should be allowed and pupils should be able to use them as required.
Masking autism is much more complex than just trying to “act normally”. Masking involves feigning interest in something you genuinely don’t have any interest in to fit in, for example;
- pretending to like the same music or sports as your peers when you really do not
- wearing clothing or make up that is uncomfortable to look like your peers
- pretending sensory input is not a problem when it is
- making eye contact when you are not comfortable doing so
- censoring everything you say so you don’t accidentally say something inappropriate
- hiding stimming which may have helped keep you regulated
Masking is exhausting. Some pupils will have felt the need to mask extensively at home, especially if they have parents who do not understand or accept their child being autistic. Many children will have gone for months without feeling the need to mask. This will likely mean they will be more physically or emotionally uncomfortable than they have been for a long time.
This will have a negative impact on their sense of identity and self-worth, all at a time when their anxiety will naturally be higher anyway. You can help by not encouraging eye contact – they can be listening without looking at you. Allowing stimming freely will help, as will a relaxed uniform code to allow for clothing that is appropriate for school and also matches sensory needs.
Some autistic students will not have been able to do much for a huge variety of reasons, so easing them back into working again may take a little time. Some may require fewer tasks,some may be desperate for more of a challenge.
Discuss with the family what would be most appropriate for them. Many autistic students have an uneven educational profile – excelling in some areas while struggling in others – and this may be even more pronounced now.
Also be considerate of when work is handed out for completion at home. Some secondary students have reported feeling a lot of anxiety on Monday mornings when they turn on their devices and see 9 or 10 new assignments waiting for them. Check with your pupils to see if they are overwhelmed in this way, and if necessary work with colleagues to stagger the date they are given out. This will allow the pupil a more manageable inbox and decrease their anxiety.
Bear in mind that not all students will need all of these considerations. As autistic students grow and get older, they will develop strategies and coping mechanisms.
While a young nursery or primary student may need many of these, older students, particularly those with few to no co-occurring conditions, may not. All adjustments should be done with input from the student and their family/carers.