Back to School, Back to Stress: 5 Tips for Autism Parents

If you believe Staples, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” But for many parents of children with autism and special needs, the days and weeks leading to “Back to School,” can be extremely nerve wracking.

Whether your child is returning to school after a few months off for summer break, or just a few weeks after the end of the extended school year (ESY), the transition to a new routine, new setting and new expectations can be a challenge, particularly for children (and families) who struggle with change.

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Your child’s interaction with new school staff, new teachers, and new peers, not to mentioned a different IEP team, all without your direct observation, can lead parents to experience a great deal of anxiety and a desire to avoid anything and everything that has to do with school preparation. However, no matter how much you might want to delay it, that first week of opening bells, circle times, pledge of allegiances and school bus trips, is coming.

Most lists with “Back to School” tips for parents actually focus on how to assist the student on the first day of school. Few truly provide parents with suggestions and resources to assist with their own worries and concerns. Parents are often so busy preparing their children that they forget to prepare themselves. 

Here is a list of 5 tips and ideas for helping your child and YOU manage the end of summer break, and start the new school year off smoothly and positively.

1. Pros and…Not Pros

Before the school year begins, create two separate lists. The first can have all the things that you felt went well and helped your child at any point last year. 

What did you appreciate from your teacher, the school staff or administration? Were there any changes that you all made during the course of the year, or practices that you established that you felt were beneficial in supporting your child’s goals, or, at the very least, made you feel more confident and comfortable? Perhaps your teacher mentioned that your child participated more when they sat at the front of the class, as opposed to in the middle, or you found that keeping your child’s homework in a 3-ring binder helped them to be more organized and resulted in less missed assignments. If your child is working with a non-public agency (NPA) at school, you can enlist the help of the staff to provide their thoughts and feedback.

What about your child and your family’s school routine worked well? Did you find it easier to have your child’s outfit picked out the night before, rather than the morning of school? Did your child wake up quicker and easier if you prepared them with a morning schedule or started the day off with a preferred activity? 

The second list should include anything that occurred last year that you felt stalled or hindered progress. This is not really the time to trash-talk specific staff or school personnel (or other students), but rather, to discuss what you learned from last year that may not have worked best for your child.

Was the communication log not being filled out consistently, or with enough helpful information, or was your child missing play opportunities because they were spending the majority of recess eating their snack? 

By creating a list of the issues and concerns you and your child experienced over the course of the previous school year, you may have the opportunity to address challenges before they impact your child. Being aware of issues allows you to discuss alternatives with your child’s teacher and staff, and try new routines at home from the start of the school year. At the very least, this list can help prepare you for potential problems before they arise and set the stage for increased success.  

2. Made a List? Great! Make One More

Now that you are an expert at making school lists, make one for yourself with the activities you participated in both inside and outside your child’s school that helped you to feel more confident and connected.

Did you chaperone your child’s field trips, or establish an agreement with the school for when and how they would contact you during the day if your child needed support? Did you get the coffee ready the night before so it was set to brew in the morning? Did you speak to your boss or coworkers to let them know of the potential for spontaneous schedule changes or upcoming meetings? Did you attend any support groups, workshops or therapy sessions that you found helpful? 

Just as you can use what you learned last year to help your child start the school year off on the right foot, think about what helped you last year and leverage the information you gained to your advantage. 

3. A Different Kind of F.R.E.T.

Parents of children with special needs generally have significantly more details to consider and manage than simply school pick-ups and drop-offs. The summer months might provide a nice break from all the specifics, but it can feel overwhelming when the time comes to dive back in. Getting back in the routine of school can be daunting, yet reviewing the elements before school starts (or at least within the first month or so) can not only be very helpful, but can also increase your sense of accomplishment and confidence.

I have put together 4 suggestions of elements to review with the acronym F.R.E.T. – hopefully, if you are able to look into each of the areas before school starts you won’t actually…fret.

  • Familiarize – Familiarize yourself with your child’s IEP and goals.

What goals were making progress toward the end of last year? Did your previous teacher or staff mention anything that helped continue the success? What about goals that seemed to not make progress? Did you receive any ideas or explanations about the challenges, and what can be done to help? Have your priorities changed over the summer regarding any of the school goals? Were any accommodations listed within your child’s IEP that you want to make sure are available from the start of the new school year? 

  • Routine – Start getting your child and your family comfortable with the school routine as early as possible.

It might have been nice to sleep a little later during the summer, but that first week of early wake ups, book bag packing and travel can be tough. Even though it may mean giving up your last few days of easier mornings, practicing and becoming accustomed to the new routine, without the pressure of a time deadline, can be very helpful. 

  • Establish – Establish contact with your child’s new teacher, school staff, outside personnel and administration to reintroduce yourself, open the door to discuss expectations and changes, and plan for any necessary team meetings.
  • Tour – Tour the school if possible.

Walk with your child around the school without all the other kids and teachers around. This may not only help your child to feel more comfortable when the school year actually begins, but it will also give you the opportunity to see where your child will be spending the majority of their time, and get ideas that may assist during their day.

4. Empathize with your Child

Your child might be feeling a little anxious or apprehensive about starting school. In fact, they may be downright mad. It is understandable that they may be frustrated that summer is coming to an end, and that they will back inside, completing assignments, sitting and doing homework. As a parent, your initial reaction may be to try to put a positive spin on the new school year. You may want to remind them of the opportunity to learn new things, see old classmates and participate in activities. However, the silver lining approach may actually discount your child’s feelings and experience.

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On the other hand, sympathizing with your child does not mean you have to agree with everything they say (e.g., “You’re right. School is stupid!”), but it does let them know that you are aware of what they are going through and can appreciate their thoughts. Support your child by acknowledging their feelings and letting them know that you are there to help.

5. Cover Your Anxiety in T.A.R.

If you are feeling anxious about the return to school, your child may respond to that nervous energy. Many of the “Back to School” lists and tips tell parents to “manage their own anxiety,” but few actually provide support and suggestions for assisting with this challenge.

Anxiety tends to center around a concern for the future – the unknown. For parents of children with autism and special needs, the future may be even more uncertain. The worry of parents of children with autism may reach far beyond the school years, but it is understandable that at the end of summer, the start of school can appear very ominous.

Managing new school year anxiety for parents of children with autism may be more involved that simply telling yourself to, “Stop” your rush of stubborn, anxiety-related thoughts. Instead, try to imagine the swift and repeated thoughts are being forced to move through T.A.R. within your mind. Slow down the thoughts to a stall. Allow yourself to acknowledge and accept the worry, which can permit you to challenge the beliefs.

  • Triggers – Learn, and take note of what triggers your anxiety related to your child’s return to school. By specifically listing the aspects of the transition that provoke more stress, you may be better able to identify what problems and concerns are legitimate, what can be addressed, and how to best support yourself and your child.  
  • Accept – Once you have your list of triggers, you will be better able to differentiate between the aspects of the situation that you can and cannot control. Accepting that you cannot control everything, allows you to constructively focus on the things that you can, when you can. 
  • Realistic – Anxious thoughts do not have to follow any rules. They can be limitless and unrealistic. Unfortunately, that may not stop the thought from influencing how you feel. Once you have identified your triggers, and differentiated and accepted the aspects that you can and cannot control, you can challenge and dispute the accuracy, pervasiveness and utility of the thought. Thoughts that are not entirely true or helpful can be addressed and streamlined to be more realistic and beneficial.  

Back to school may be only one change in a long road of challenges, stresses and adjustments for you and your family. Yet, with a little planning, some support and a lot of patience, you can use what you have learned from previous experiences as your guide. Even if your child is entering school for the first time, moving from junior high to high school or is about to start college, your family has likely been through a number of shifts and new transitions. Some have probably been more successful than others, but regardless of the outcome, you have learned not only what may be the most helpful and least beneficial strategies in assisting your family through transitions, but also that your family can manage through these changes together. 

Dr. Darren Sush, Psy.D., BCBA-D, specializes in therapy for parents of children with autism and special needs. His office is located in Los Angeles, CA. For more information, visit

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