You’re getting ready to go back to in-person school after more than a year of non-traditional learning. Whether it was online learning, hybrid learning, or navigating complicated COVID protocol, it was a difficult year. You just got used to your COVID lifestyle and now you have to pivot and change course again because life is slowly returning to “normal.” In reality, going to school was likely already stressful as a teen with autism, but this year the start of school feels even worse than it used to.
There are a lot of reasons why high school or college life may be hard for a neurodivergent individual to navigate. Amongst these reasons are social anxiety, sensory sensitivities, and black and white thinking. Furthermore, you may really dislike change and transitions. This creates the perfect storm for autism meltdowns or just a horrible mix of autism and anxiety.
For example, you may dread walking down the halls at your school or university because they’re loud and chaotic. Or maybe you dread interacting with your peers and become hyper-focused on saying or doing the right thing. When this happens it may feel like you’re drowning. Or, you may start to experience the uncomfortable physical symptoms of an autism meltdown.
Unfortunately, your peers and teachers are not likely to have the training to spot your discomfort and notice the signs of a meltdown. Furthermore, if you bring up your discomfort they probably don’t know how to help you through it. So, you begin to dread and possibly even avoid going to school because it makes you so uncomfortable.
Autism and Anxiety: Helpful Tips and Tricks When Returning to In-Person Learning
Now, you’re likely wondering what can I do to make re-entry into in-person learning a little easier? Well, let me share with you some suggestions for navigating this challenging time. Coping with autism and anxiety while readjusting to in-person interactions can be difficult. Below are some tips to help you readjust.
First things first, identify your triggers.
Think about what makes you feel uncomfortable when you’re at school. Is it the noise? The people? Social interaction? The lighting? Identifying the things that may lead to distress is the first step in preventing a meltdown.
Then, think about how your body feels when you’re overstimulated. Check for physical symptoms like a tight chest, sweating, fidgeting, or stimming behavior. Additionally, check for trembling, trouble breathing, headaches, & more. The more you know about how your body reacts to stress, the better you can handle stress in the moment.
Build a support system
It’s really important that you identify individuals at your school that can help you feel safe and return to a calm state when you’re feeling overwhelmed. This may be a teacher you’re particularly fond of, a paraprofessional, your counselor, an administrator, or a nurse. Write their names down and then speak with them to create an action plan. If you’re not sure what this may look like, talk to your parents, your therapist, or any other helping professionals and get their input. If you have an IEP, this plan may already be in place. A behavior support plan (BSP) or other documents can also aid your support system in helping with your autism and anxiety.
Know what to do to prevent overwhelm
If you want to feel prepared to go back to school, it is important to create a plan to help you from feeling overstimulated. There are a lot of different ways you can center yourself to keep from getting stressed out. These different ways can also help when you are already feeling distressed. But these relaxation techniques can be hard to remember when you’re overwhelmed. So, it’s important that while you’re creating your action plan, you keep it simple and easy to remember. Some suggestions I have shared with clients include:
- Keeping a fidget or two in your pocket or backpack
- Wearing a hoodie to drown out stimulation
- Wearing headphones
- Finding quiet spaces on campus to getaway
- Take a less-traveled way to get to your classes
- Taking a bathroom break to recenter yourself
- Ask to see the nurse and call your parent
- Count in your head while walking down the hallway or play a game like “I Spy” for example
The point of creating a game plan is to prevent you from reaching meltdown mode. So it’s very important to know where and when to employ your plan. And at the first sign of distress, I recommend enacting this plan before the situation gets worse.
Rehearse your routine and your action plan until you feel confident enacting it.
This point is pretty important. Once you’ve done all the steps above, it’s important to put your plan into action and practice it. When you’re in the moment and feel upset, knowing exactly what to do is so important. This may be the thing that will prevent things from getting worse and keep you from a meltdown. So practice your school routines, go over your plan, walk the halls, and talk to your support people before the school year begins. This will help you feel more confident that you know what to do and lessen some of the fear and anxiety you may be feeling.
As an autism therapist, I know it’s not just students that are struggling with re-entry. In fact, working professionals with autism are having a hard time navigating the transition back to the office. In my next blog, I will share my suggestions for making re-entry easier on neurodivergent working professionals. Stay tuned!
Autism and Anxiety Therapy Opportunities
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Other Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
Our autism therapy clinic in California serves teens and adults on the autism spectrum. In particular, we support those who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, and ASD traits. We also offer support to the families of those with ASD.
Right now, we offer all our autism therapy services online. Through our services, we offer individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, group therapy, and a variety of other autism therapy services. Additionally, we run several different social skills groups! Currently, we have groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, teens & caregivers, and gifted youth & caregivers. Additionally, we have social skills groups for neurodiverse adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a mothers group, and a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college. Reach out to our autism therapy office for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.