School can be a frightening place for autistic children. The challenges and stressful situations that they are faced with during the day, can result in the child refusing to go to school. 216 Primary and high school children – 78 of them autistic, recently took part in a study conducted in Norway.
The whole purpose of the study was to explore the dangers of autistic children refusing to attend school. Only 7.1% of typical children refused to go to school, while the risk of autistic children refusing to attend school was 42.6%.
In addition to this, it was found that autistic children refused to go to school for longer than typical children. Children With autism used different ways to communicate their refusal to attend school,such as pleading, crying, clinging onto the parent, non-compliance, as well as threats and physical aggression.
The level and amount of school refusal was the same among both primary and high school girls and boys with autism.
Although this Norwegian study did confirm the fact that many students with autism refused to attend school, it did not do an in-depth investigation as to why they felt that school was such a problematic place, and a place that they strongly didn’t want to attend.
Reasons behind autistic children’s refusal to attend school
Some Children with autism are unable to go to school because they find it difficult to cope with the demands placed on them, as well as finding the school environment hard to deal with.
It is incredibly important for the parents to get to the root cause of this problem, otherwise it may continue for extended periods. You can’t deal with a problem unless you fully understand it, after all.
One key reason that a lot of autistic children feel they don’t want to go to school, is because of the fear of rejection, or that they might be subject to teasing or bullying from other children.
An autistic child often has a completely different way of thinking and acting than the majority of children, and unfortunately this difference is one that some children may choose to play on. This can especially be the case as your child gets older.
Something a lot of people take for granted is social skills, but an autistic child often lacks these basic skills, and can find them hard to develop in a natural way. This can make it hard for them to build meaningful relationships in school, something that will probably make their feelings about school worse. This social awkwardness can again heighten the chance of being subjected to bullying.
Not only do autistic children often struggle with social skills, they also find it hard to access the school curriculum in the way others do. They often don’t think or learn in the same way, so it can be harder for them to follow what the teacher is asking them to do or learn.
On top of all of this, an autistic child can often be more sensitive to change and variations in the school environment. A strange smell, a new teacher or different lighting may make all the difference, and distract them from their learning.
As you can see, there are many variables that could be negatively affecting an autistic child’s feelings about their school. It can be hard for them to ‘fit in’ with such a radically different mindset and way of working.
How your child’s teacher can help
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a perfect teacher, so you can’t expect all of these areas to be covered well. Hopefully, it will at least give you some idea as to what a teacher could be doing to help your autistic child.
Remain calm and supportive. As an autistic child can act so differently from other children, it is important that the teacher doesn’t get frustrated by this, and remains calm and reassuring at all times.
Get to know your child’s uniqueness. As we discussed earlier, an autistic child can have a totally different way of learning, something that your child’s teacher needs to tune in to.
Educate others and be a positive role model. It can be hard for the other children in your child’s class to know how to act to an autistic child’s mannerisms. This is something that the teacher should model, and help educate the others as to why your child may operate differently.
Watch out for bullying or negative actions towards your child. If the teacher can help prevent these actions, it will help your child feel safer at school. A safe environment is one of the bedrocks of any child’s school life.
Help smooth out the school experience. As your child’s teacher learns their needs, this should help smooth out their school day. The teacher can use some strategies to help at these times. Maybe your child particularly struggles with transitions between different parts of the timetable, something the teacher can prepare your child for. Maybe helping to lead your child to the lunch room will ease their worries about the environment there.
Visual timetable Using a visual timetable can be very helpful for many autistic children. It can give them a clear idea what is coming up that day, and will help them mentally prepare for what is next.
What your child’s school can do to help
This section will give you an idea of what a good school might do to support all of their special needs children. Again, there is no such thing as a perfect school, but it is good to know what they should be doing!
Educate the School Community. Assemblies can be used as an opportunity to educate the other children about what autism is, and why some children with autism act the way they do.
The National Autistic Society has a whole raft of resources aimed at helping teachers educate the peers of autistic children, hopefully helping them understand why they may act differently.
Educate the Staff. Autism awareness training can be given to all of the staff, from teachers to dinner ladies. This will help to make sure that whoever comes in contact with an autistic child will have a better idea how to support them.
How you can help your autistic child get back to school
Be aware that an autistic child can find their school life very tiring and draining, mentally and physically. They often build up a barrier or defense mechanism to deal with the differences they encounter at school.
We need to find ways to decrease this stress, and help them integrate better into their school community. In turn, this should help them have more ‘wins’ at school and therefore have more motivation to go back. This is easier said than done, but hopefully we can give you some helpful tips to start.
Talk it through
Find ways to discuss with your child what is happening at school, and the problems they may be facing. Make sure to calmly listen to what they say and not jump in there with emotional responses. You want your child to feel they can talk to you without judgement. Be a place your child can pour out their troubles.
If your child finds it hard to open up, you could use story books as a gateway to this. By reading a story about a character having troubles at school, you can find a way to discuss theirs more indirectly. This is good, as your child won’t feel the pressure of being directly questioned.
For example, the book below is a great one to get talking about bullying. Click the image to go view it on Amazon.
Another good way to help your child to open up is to make a daily diary of their school life. Talk about and note down what happened at school that day together. Talk about both the positive and negative experiences they had at school that day, to make it more fun (and not just a grilling!). As well as giving you ideas as to what pain points your child has at school, it will also give you something to go back and reflect on too. All of this will help you gain a deeper understanding of your child’s problems.
You could make this more fun by buying an interesting diary that your child enjoys using. Below are some examples…
Once you get your child to talk about their woes at school, you need to work out some type of rating system together. You can print out some different face emoticons (for example) that show varying degrees of emotion. Ask your child to point to one to express how bad the feeling is for a particular problem at school. This will help you prioritise which situations are the hardest for your child to deal with.
Once you know this, it will help you make a better plan to help your child.
Knowing your child’s problems at school well is also important so that you can share these with their school. In an ideal world, your relationship with them should be a partnership, with both parties working together to support your child.
Work through any problem situations
When you find out what the problems are, you need to help your child understand the best way to deal with these situations. With an older child, you can discuss the reasons these problems are occurring and what your child can do to work through them.
For younger children, you can use role play to act out the same problems. You can use figures from a dolls house, soft toys, hand puppets or anything that can be used to play out the different roles. This will help you work through the problems in a fun and engaging way. This is particularly good for highlighting how to deal with problems around social interactions.
Story books that show similar problems and their related solutions are also good to share regularly with younger children.
Find out what helps your child reduce stress
Your child might find certain activities stress relieving, and these can provide invaluable to help your child deal with the problems they face at school. Maybe playing football when they get home helps them feel better, or being able to squeeze a squidgy ball in their hand might help take their mind off the problem or focus better.
A stress meter to show your child’s stress level could help them self regulate when they get into high stress situations. You could talk through what they can do to de-stress if they get beyond a certain point on the meter.
Celebrate the wins, no matter how small
When you see progress from your child’s willingness to go to school, or they do something well that you know is hard, make sure to give them praise. Celebrating these wins will help improve your child’s motivation levels.
Strategies you can discuss with your child’s school
As a preface to this section, I want to say that the very first thing you should do is to find out what your child’s school is offering to support his or her autism. You could questions such as the following:
“What special support are you offering my child to help them access the school’s curriculum?” This will help you understand the exact support currently in place.
“Who is supporting my child’s teacher?” Most schools will have a SEN (special educational needs) department that will help your child’s teacher observe and work with an autistic (or any special needs) child. This is important as most teachers are not experts in this area specifically.
“What have you noticed about my child’s learning and what have you done to support this?” Basically, most schools will complete an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for any special needs child that will outline what they have observed and how they plan to tackle the issues raised.
The help that your child needs as far as school is concerned, depends entirely on what is causing your child’s anxiety during school time.
Try not to come across as aggressive or demanding in any way. Developing a good working relationship is vital to your child’s progress. Otherwise, the school might become defensive and unwilling to help.
These initial conversations with your child’s school will set the scene for the strategies you need to talk about with them next.
The thing is, there might be a particular problem that the school needs to deal with immediately, like bullying, for instance. If bullying is happening, this is a pretty simple thing for you to notify the school and leave in their hands to deal with.
However, there are some more complex strategies or interventions that you may want to talk through with your child’s school.
Many children and young people with autism have sensory sensitivities that can cause problems in the school environment. There are certain strategies that are helpful in these cases, like allowing the child to wear ear defenders or ear muffs, setting aside a suitable work area, or creating a quiet, calm space where the child can work without interruptions.
Extra Adult Support
In some cases, an autistic child could benefit from getting support from a trusted adult at key times. This could be to help them transition from one part of their timetable to another, or cope with a time they feel particularly tough at school.
After questioning your school on their SEN department (as suggested above), if you find out that the support in your child’s school is lacking, you might want to discuss the use of an occupational therapist. Maybe you can find one in your local area that can come with you to regular meetings with your child’s teacher, to discuss strategies and such like.
Above, we said that a teacher should get to know this part of your child’s personality. Well, who better to discuss this with than yourselves. Make sure to share anything you have found to help relieve your child’s stress at home.
Also, share your child’s interests and hobbies. This will help your child’s teachers find ways to make the learning more appealing to your child.
Depending on your child’s sensitivities at school, you may want to ask the school if they can be flexible with certain routines around this.
For example, maybe your autistic child finds home time overwhelming. Maybe you can ask the school to let your child leave a few minutes earlier, or maybe from a separate and quieter door. Or have a trusted adult from the school accompany your child at this time.
This flexibility could also take the form of a temporary part time schedule. If your child has just had a period off school because they refused to go, this could ease the stress of going back. At this time, you would hope that the school would play an active role in the smooth reintegration of your child. A process that should involve input from them specifically.
Discuss your Child’s Timetable
It could be very helpful to first get a timetable from your child’s teacher. You can then talk with your child about each of the lessons, or the different parts that make up their day. You can rate each of these together to find out which your child does and doesn’t like.
For the ones that your child doesn’t like, you could discuss this with the teacher and talk about any ways to improve these sessions.
What to do if the problem isn’t resolved?
If you feel that your child’s school is not being supportive enough, and the school refusal problem continues for a prolonged time, you may want to find an alternative school that is better in this area.
You could also consider homeschooling your autistic child, although this is far from the ideal way to deal with the situation. You want your child to be around other children, to help them get used to working with (or at least alongside) them. But in a worst case scenario, where your school choices are limited, this may be your only option.
With free resources, such as Easy Peasy Homeschool, setting yourself up to do this has never been easier. All the resources you need can be found online.
We hope we have helped!!
We sincerely hope that this article can be helpful for any parents having a problem with their autistic child not wanting to go to school. If you have any of your own experiences around this subject, or advice you would like to give others, we would love to hear all about it in the comments section below.
Last but not least, I reviewed an awesome autism based magazine for parents on Best case Parenting. You can go read this review HERE.