Dear Autistic Students,
Going back to school after the holidays can be very overwhelming and daunting, let alone going back to school after the events of this year. So firstly let me tell you that no-one is expecting you to find it easy.
I’m going to share some tips and advice, of things which helped me to cope with going back to school. Of course, not everything that helped me will necessarily be beneficial to you. Over time we each build up our own toolbox of coping mechanisms that work for us. I just hope some of these ideas may be somewhat helpful.
- Start getting your sleeping schedule back on track before you start school!
For me, this means gradually going to bed earlier in the week or so leading up to the first day back at school, and waking up earlier too. So, say I’ve been going to bed at midnight, but I want to be sleeping by 10 for school, I might start pushing my bedtime back to 11.30, then 11, and so on. I would do a similar thing for waking up, by setting my alarm earlier each day. I find this just helps prepare my body for when I go back to school, instead of waking up early being such a shock to the system!
- Sort out your room!
Tidy your room up! Create space on your desk. Clear out your drawers. Make sure there is space for you to come in from school and be able to do your work without your mind feeling more cluttered by your surroundings!
- Get in touch with whoever supports you at school.
If you have someone who supports you at school, such as a SENCO, or a pastoral support officer, or even just your favourite teacher, send them an email. Let them how you are feeling about returning to school and ask if there is any support they can give you in the first week back. Being open with those who support you make it easier for both of you.
- If there are particular things that are worrying you, make a list of them. Show the list to your parents or to whoever supports you at school.
For me, this would include things like my new teachers not knowing not to pick on me in class (because this worsened my anxiety, so teachers would be informed not to pick on me!), and me not being sat by the door in seating plans (I needed to feel like I could escape if things got too much!). I would feel anxious going back because new teachers meant my reasonable adjustments wouldn’t always be put in place straight away. Show the list to someone at school and see if they can help reassure you or send an additional email out to your teachers.
- Make a timetable for your first week back, even if you don’t have your school timetable yet.
At my school we only found out our subject timetable on the first day back at school. This was difficult for me because I wasn’t able to prepare myself for what lessons and teachers I had – it was just sprung on me! From year 10, I got given my timetable before the summer holidays which was extremely helpful (perhaps this is a reasonable adjustment you could ask for next year?). Even if you don’t know your school timetable, try creating a timetable for the rest of your days, with things you do know and can control – for example, what time you will get up, when you will do your homework, what other activities you will do in your free time. This helps me to see that I do have some structure and routine.
- Try to focus on the things you can control and keep the same.
I know just how out of control you may feel returning to school, and how much everything changes at once. Try to focus on things you can control, whether that be having the same sandwich for lunch every day, or having the same things with you every day that help to ground you and help you to feel safe (for me this was my journal, fidget toys and my water bottle).
- If you are worried about not being able to engage with your special interest, talk it through with someone you trust and try to figure out a way around the problem.
I know what it’s like. Being fixated on an interest and not being able to think about anything else. Feeling stressed, upset, angry, when you aren’t able to engage with it. For me, I guess a combination of trying to practice radical acceptance (accepting I can’t change the fact I have to go to school) and then trying to prepare for ways I can make myself feel better about this. For example, if your special interest is reading – can you read at break, at lunch, during form-time? Can you dedicate an hour after school to it before you start your homework? (Though I know this often fails because once I’m stuck in it, drawing myself away to do something as tedious as homework feels impossible!). This one is a really hard one. There may not be anything you can do about this. Solidarity and hugs.
- Know where you can go if things get too much.
Is there somewhere you can go at school if you feel overwhelmed and anxious? This may be curriculum support, the pastoral support office, the library, a teacher’s office, a specific room you know will be empty, or just anywhere in school you feel safe. I know not everyone is lucky enough to have a place like this in school, and I hope that if that’s you, you are able to get some more support this year.
- Know who you can speak to if things get too much. (Or to speak to them to stop things getting to the point where they are too much!)
In school – is there a teacher you trust? The SENCO? The school nurse? Even the school librarian? (My school librarian was fabulous!)
At home – can you speak to a parent? A sibling? An aunt or cousin? A friend?
There are many organisations who are here to listen and help you. They also have some great resources on their websites:
ChildLine: 1 to 1 online chat, or call 0800 1111. childline.org.uk. See their tips to cope with school here https://www.childline.org.uk/get-involved/articles/7-tips-to-cope-with-school/.
Kooth: Provides online mental health support for young people. kooth.com
The Mix: Provides essential support for under-25’s. Text THEMIX to 85258, or call 0800 808 4994, or access 1-1 chat here themix.org.uk.
- Try to be kind to yourself.
I know it’s hard. I know it’s easy to be hard on ourselves – that almost comes to us more naturally. It’s hard to be kind to ourselves, especially when we are struggling. Try to remember that this is a very overwhelming time, and looking after yourself will help get you through it. Spend more time doing things you love and doing things you know help you. You deserve it.
I will end the advice there. I know preachy tips can be annoying. Especially when it feels that you have already tried everything everyone else is telling you and none of it feels like it works. I’ve been there. So for now, I just want to add this:
I know how difficult the next few weeks are going to be. There may be additional things in your life which will make it even harder for you. I don’t want to pretend to understand exactly what you’re going through. But, you have done this before. You have gone back to school every year and even when it is has felt impossible and like it would be easier for the world to just end, you made it through. You are preparing to go back for a new year, and that is amazing.
I know the fears are endless. The anxiety makes you feel like you’re going to throw up. I know it feels like no-one understands. I know it’s frustrating that something as simple as going to school has to be so damn difficult for you.
But you will get through it.
Day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute.
You’ve got this.
All my love, Emily.