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Anxiety at school: children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

5-15 years

Children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have more anxiety than other children. Anxiety can affect your child’s enjoyment and learning at school. It might even stop him from wanting or being able to go to school. Here’s how to work with the school to help your child.

Working with primary schools on anxiety and ASD

When your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), good communication between you and your child’s school and staff is especially important.

Setting up a meeting with school staff to talk about your child’s anxiety is a good start. You could ask for the following staff to come – your child’s teacher, other staff who work with your child and counselling staff. If your child has a student support group (SSG), you can talk at the SSG meetings about your child’s anxiety and how to support her.

When you meet with the SSG or school staff, your aim is to work with the school to understand what’s making your child anxious. Once you know this, you can work together on strategies to help your child.

Here are some things to talk about with school staff:

  • Your child’s developmental level, communication abilities, and social, emotional and behavioural problems: a good understanding of these things will help you work out what’s making your child feel anxious. If your child has had an assessment recently, it’s a good idea to bring this along.
  • Signs of your child’s anxiety: for example, does your child have meltdowns, refuse to participate, rely more on obsessions and rituals, or have trouble sleeping?
  • Causes of your child’s anxiety: for example, it could be about separation from you, fear of something at school, a recent change at home or school, the demands of socialising and communicating at school, or fear of failure.
  • Strategies that you use at home to help your child: talk with the staff about how they could use these strategies at school.
  • Existing school strategies to help children with anxiety: ask the staff what they currently do to help other children with anxiety and how these strategies could help your child.

Young children with ASD: strategies to help with anxiety at school

If your child is anxious about starting primary school, you can get him familiar with the school before he starts. For example, you could visit a few times and practise the journey to school. You can also make sure he knows a safe place to go at school if he’s feeling overwhelmed.

If your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is anxious about changing routines at school, you can use photographs, visual schedules, Social Stories™ or a picture book to get her ready for changes.

These visual strategies can also help your child with separation. For example, you could show your child a photograph of himself at school so he knows where he’ll be, a photograph of you at work or at home so he knows where you’ll be, and a photograph of you coming to pick him up when school finishes.

The stepladder approach to overcoming phobias and fears can help some children with ASD.

If your child is feeling tense, anxious and worried, you could help her to try simple muscle relaxation exercises. And some parents find that massage and relaxation tapes help their children too.

Working with secondary schools on anxiety and ASD

Good communication between home and secondary school is the starting point for supporting your older child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

You might have regular meetings about your child’s individual learning plan, perhaps once a term. These meetings are a good chance to discuss your child’s overall progress and support.

But if your child has anxiety, you might need to be in touch with your child’s school more often, perhaps every day. It helps to have a key contact person. This might be a classroom teacher, or a member of support staff like the school psychologist or counsellor. Communicating regularly with this person means everyone knows how your child is feeling each day. You might do this in person, by phone or by email.

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 would feel comfortable talking to if he needs help. This might be the school psychologist or welfare coordinator.

You can also ask your school contact person about what strategies the school uses to help children with anxiety, how these strategies could help, and what you need to do to get them happening for your child.

Written guidelines help everyone understand your child’s needs. A one-page summary that you share with all staff is a good idea. It should include information about your child’s diagnosis, what she does well, what she struggles with, and what sorts of things make her anxious. You should review and update the summary regularly.

Starting at secondary school is a big change for any child, particularly for children with ASD. To make the transition to secondary school easier for your child, you and the school will need to plan it carefully. It might also need to happen in stages.

Teenagers with ASD: strategies to help with anxiety at school

It can help to teach your teenage child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to recognise the physical feelings that go with being stressed, nervous or anxious. For example, his palms get sweaty, his heart beats faster and his hands flap.

A checklist for these feelings can help your child get to know the signs of anxiety as well as the situations that make her 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.

Modified cognitive behaviour therapies might help your child develop skills to change his thinking in situations that make him anxious.

Smartphone or tablet technology can help your child keep travel and school timetables, calendars and transport information handy. This can help to reduce your child’s anxiety.

If your teenage child has severe anxiety, her psychiatrist might think about prescribing medications like selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and tricyclic antidepressants.

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Last updated or reviewed
15-12-2015

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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