About school anxiety in autistic children and teenagers
All children can feel anxious about school. Schools can be busy, noisy places, and there are a lot of people to interact with. There are assignments and tests. And school routines can sometimes be disrupted, so children don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Autistic children and teenagers can experience anxiety more intensely and more often than typically developing children. It’s common for them to feel a lot of anxiety about school.
Anxiety at or about school can affect your autistic child’s learning at school. It might stop them engaging with or enjoying lessons, and 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 school is a big change for any child, particularly for autistic children and teenagers. 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
- meltdowns or more meltdowns than usual
- more time by themselves
- an increased reliance on special interests, routines and rituals
- 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 and teenagers 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 is experiencing 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.
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 might reduce your child’s anxiety because it lets them more easily see and understand their routines and feel a sense of control.
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
Learning to recognise and understand strong emotions can be a step towards managing them for your autistic child. This can help your child with calming down.
Part of this is learning to recognise the physical feelings that go with anxiety. These might include sweaty palms, a fast heartbeat or flapping hands.
A checklist can help your child get to know these signs 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. Ensure that staff at your child’s school also know about this place and will help your child go there when they need to.
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 will 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 therapy to help your child develop skills to change their thinking in situations that make them anxious.