9th August 2019 • Emma Cooper
How’s everyone’s August going? Having the time of your life on holidays and days out? Or juggling work, childcare and that immeasurable pressure of making perfect family memories like a Britain’s Got Talent gold buzzer circus act?
Before we know it, September will be here and so will a new school year.
September for me as an Autism Advocate is the hardest month of the year. Back to school brings much excitement for many but for children and young adults with SEN, September is at best anxious and at worst terrifying.
Last September alone I was contact by 4 families whose young person went into a serious mental health crisis with the return to school or start of a new secondary school or college.
Already this summer I’ve been contact by disabled students and even mature adult ones who are dreading the new academic year.
So, what can we do to help prepare and prevent a crisis before the start of term?
One way that really helped me gain perspective of a situation when my mind started to spiral into certain doom (also known as catastrophic thinking!) was to make lists.
A pro list, all the positive reasons to be participating in the event.
A cons list, all the negative reasons of participating in the event.
If the negatives outweigh the positives there is either very little point participating OR much work to be done to navigate the negatives.
If anything, the list will help show your younger person that there ARE positives behind the negatives.
Don’t use the word NEW
When your whole world is far less predictable than that of your peers the word NEW can seem terrifying. New means change and change means uncertainty.
The word ‘different’ or ‘exciting’ can sometimes help.
Sensory issues and uniform
All parents will do the usual online moan about how they’ve spent 456 hours ironing name labels on; for parents of children with sensory issues that’s likely to be 456 hours of removing labels!
When a blazer feels like a straight jacket and socks feel like razors it can be very hard to last the day let alone learn anything and take it all in.
Instead of using sew in labels, try using a fabric pen to name clothing. Washing uniforms before the first day can help make them not only feel better but smell familiar too.
I supported one young woman who had a reborn doll she loved a great deal and who gave her a lot of comfort at home. She was unable to take the doll to college with her, so we came up with an idea of wearing a sweat band on her wrist, like the ones tennis players wear and washing it in the same fabric conditioner her reborn dolls baby clothes are washed in for comfort at college.
The same could be done for a child who is anxious about leaving a parent or even their dog?
Suggest a packed lunch box
Hot school meals are fabulous in today’s times and for parents on a low income, they are often free. As a single mum there was a time where we qualified for free school meals but sadly couldn’t take up the kind offer as my daughter couldn’t cope with the uncertainty of what the food would look like, who was serving it, where they’d be in the queue and the noise and echo of the dinner hall.
If your child prefers a hot meal, ask school if there is a quiet area for children to eat? Can there be photographs of the meals to show child in advance? Can disabled children discreetly go first in line?
We opted for making our own packed lunches, often with expensive easy to open single use food items that I knew she would at least eat. It’s everyday issues like this that Disability Living Allowance is very handy for, so if you haven’t claimed and need support doing so do contact your local disability charities who should offer benefit support or see your citizens advice bureau.
An un-buddy bench
We have all heard of the buddy bench, a bench where you sit if you are alone and want to play with someone. The result being people kindly offering you a chat or a game.
For many autistic children they actually WANT and NEED some time alone to process and recover in the day. Playtime is highly unstructured and requires a great deal of social currency to navigate. Social currency being the one thing we often desperately lack!
I describe social currency and not being as well equipped in that area of life as going out to dinner with rich friends when you are broke, days away from pay day. You really want to be able to go to dinner and reluctantly attend as you don’t want them to think you’re being rude, but you can’t relax and laugh in the right places like they do. They aren’t spending the whole meal doing mental
calculations on how much it will cost if you split the bill 4 ways equally at the end and panicking that Mr Rich Mate over there will order the most expensive steak and champagne. Worried at any moment you’ll get caught out and they’ll discover your worries.
The only way to join in is to take your credit card and succumb to the fact that you are really going to pay for this later – with interest – whilst they are ready for the next social event unscathed.
Playtime feels like that. Imagine having to feel that way 3 times a day – everyday.
An un-buddy bench offering a talk free, serene respite area can really help.
What is a friendship? What does that look like for the friend and for you?
What does it feel like when it’s going good? What does it feel like when it’s going wrong? How do different (avoiding word NEW here!) friendships grow?
I found a lovely illustration online completing accident yesterday detailing the difference between someone you know and a friend.
Maybe talk, draw and write with your young person what they would class as each and what type of engagement, expectation and trust they should allow with each different type of friend. This can prevent disappointment when they overshare with a friend they’ve just met who then tells others!
I wish you all a very happy, seamless transition from the summer to the new school year and look forward to writing back mid September when I’ll be in Edinburgh and Ireland.
Enjoy the rest of your summer!
CBeebies’ Pablo programme @PabloTVShow has started their #IWishYouKnew campaign on social media, which is a movement of understanding and acceptance. What do you, as parents of children with additional needs wish your children’s friends and teachers knew ahead of going back to school? Share your thoughts using the hashtag and don’t forget to tag us in @weareMFON so we can see and share!