About school anxiety in autistic children and teenagers
Autistic children and teenagers might feel anxious about school for many of the same reasons that typically developing children do. For example, schools can be busy, noisy places, and there are a lot of people to interact with. There are assignments and tests. And sometimes school routines get disrupted and children don’t know what’s going to happen next.
But it’s also common for autistic children and teenagers to have more anxiety about school than typically developing children.
Anxiety at or about school can affect your autistic child’s enjoyment and learning at school. It might even stop them from wanting or being able to go to school. This is why it’s important to work with your child’s school to help your child.
Starting at school is a big change for any child, particularly for autistic children. Careful planning can make the transition to primary school and the transition to secondary school easier and less stressful for your child.
Signs of school anxiety in autistic children and teenagers
If your autistic child is experiencing anxiety about school, you might see signs like an increase in challenging behaviour. For example, your child might:
- have meltdowns or more meltdowns than usual
- want to spend more time by themselves
- rely more than usual on their routines
- rely more on obsessions and rituals
- have more trouble sleeping.
You might notice these signs at home, or a school staff member might contact you to tell you that they’re seeing these signs or other behaviour changes at school.
Causes of school anxiety in autistic children and teenagers
Common causes of anxiety about school for autistic children and teenagers include:
- separation from you
- fear of something at school
- a recent change at home or school
- the demands of socialising and communicating at school
- fear of failure at school.
Working with schools on anxiety in autistic children and teenagers
If your autistic child is anxious at or about school, working with the school is a key part of supporting your child.
That’s because school staff will be able to:
- tell you more about your child’s behaviour at school
- share their thoughts on what might be triggering the anxiety at school
- explain existing strategies to help children with anxiety at school and how these strategies could be adapted for your child.
You’ll be able to share information about:
- your child’s specific anxiety signs and symptoms
- strategies that you use at home to help with your child’s anxiety
- anything at home that might be contributing to your child’s anxiety.
So start by setting up a meeting with school staff. You could ask for the following staff to come – your child’s teacher, other staff who work with your child and the school psychologist or counsellor. Or if your child has a student support group (SSG), you can talk to them.
At this meeting your aim is to get a clear picture of what’s making your child anxious. Once you and school staff understand the situation, you can work together on strategies to help your child.
If your child has anxiety, you might need to be in frequent touch with your child’s school, perhaps every day. It helps to have a key contact person. This might be a classroom teacher or the school psychologist or counsellor. Communicating regularly with this person means everyone knows how your child is feeling each day.
Practice and familiarisation strategies for school anxiety
If your child is anxious about starting school, you can get them familiar with the school before they start. For example, you could visit a few times and practise the journey to school. Another way to practise going to school is through the stepladder approach, which can help some autistic children overcome their phobias and fears.
Visual tools and supports for school anxiety
If your child is older, they could use apps for travel and school timetables, calendars and transport information. This can help to reduce your child’s anxiety because they can easily see and understand their routines and feel a sense of control over them.
Visual strategies can also help your child with separation anxiety at school. For example, you could show your child a photograph of:
- themselves at school so they know where they’ll be
- you at work or at home so they know where you’ll be
- you coming to pick them up when school finishes.
Strategies for recognising feelings and calming down
It can help to teach your autistic child to recognise the physical feelings that go with being stressed, nervous or anxious. For example, their palms get sweaty, their heart beats faster and their hands flap.
A checklist for these feelings can help your child get to know the signs of anxiety as well as the situations that make them feel anxious or stressed. You could try drawing the checklist as an outline of a person’s body. Your child can use this checklist at home, school and other places.
You can also make sure your child knows a safe place to go to at school if they’re feeling overwhelmed.
Professional support for children and teenagers with school anxiety
It’s important for your child to have someone to talk to at school. Talk with school staff and your child about who your child would feel comfortable talking to if they need help. This might be the school psychologist or welfare coordinator.
It’s also a good idea to look into professional support outside school. For example, a psychologist might use cognitive behaviour therapies to help your child develop skills to change their thinking in situations that make them anxious.