School mornings can be a challenge at any age, and it’s no secret that most teenagers don’t want to go to school. As many teens begin to crave more autonomy, they may view school as boring or stifling. It’s not uncommon for teen’s to say that they don’t want to go to school, but for some teens it’s much more than that. Some adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) get hit with a jolt of anxiety and fear at the thought of climbing onto that bright yellow school bus and heading to school; this anxiety and fear compels them to come up with an excuse to stay home. This is called school refusal.
For parents, it can be difficult to tell the difference between usual teen defiance and school refusal. How do you know if it’s typical teen rebellion or something deeper? This confusion can cause the issue to go unnoticed and possibly even worsen over time.
Understanding School Refusal
Problematic behavior around school, such as skipping school to hang out with friends, doesn’t come from the same place that school refusal does. Actions like skipping school to hang out with friends usually comes from a place of teen rebellion. School refusal is entirely different and has nothing to do with feelings of rebellion.
School refusal often comes from a place of anxiety and fear. Those emotions can derive from issues having to do with separation from their family or issues connected to the school itself. Separation anxiety, trauma, and other underlying issues can cause a child with autism to be too afraid to attend school out of fear of something happening to a loved one while they’re gone.
Issues at school–particularly bullying–can make a teen very hesitant towards going to school. Because teens with ASD struggle with expressing themselves, this can make it harder to get a grasp on what’s really happening and why your teen is acting a certain way.
Recognizing School Refusal in Teens with ASD
Because expressing themselves can be challenging for teens on the spectrum, recognizing school refusal is not always a simple task. Teens may know that something feels wrong for them, but they are unable to articulate what exactly those feelings are. In these cases, it can be helpful to be aware of some of the symptoms of school refusal:
- Clinging behavior when it is time for school. Does your child want to stay glued to your side in the mornings? Do you find them refusing to get onto the bus or out of the car? This clinging behavior could be a sign that something deeper is happening. For your child, you are their safe space. If they are experiencing anxiety or discomfort at school, it is easy to see why they would want to keep you near.
- Extreme tantrums when forced to go to school. Extreme emotional or physical outbursts can tell you that something is troubling your teen. They may feel worried, but instead of being able to express that, the emotion may come out as screaming or physical tantrum. Although it may seem extreme, they are trying to communicate that they do not want to go to school.
- Acting out when discussing school. Does just talking about school seem to trigger your teen? You may notice that when you bring up school they completely shut down or melt down. It can be that they are trying to process the feelings that arise when they are at school, and even just talking about being in that environment puts them into that emotional state.
- Physical complaints. For some teens on the autism spectrum, it is easier to name physical sensations than emotions. These teens may complain of stomach aches or headaches as a reason to not go to school. They may ask for sick days, or be sent to the nurse once they arrive at school. These physical symptoms, often tied to stress and anxiety, may be the way they can relate what is happening to them and how they are feeling.
- Obsessive school avoidance. Again, school refusal is much deeper than just wanting to stay home every now and then. School refusal is persistent and obsessive. This can also be challenging for teens with autism who feel more comfortable with a routine. If they are allowed to spend a couple of days at home away from school, they may begin to fixate on keeping this new routine where they feel more comfortable. It can then become difficult to transition your teen back to their school routine.
Strategies for Dealing with School Refusal
For parents, dealing with school refusal can be exhausting and overwhelming. It is obvious that your teen is struggling, but at the same time, they do need to attend school. So how do you balance those two things?
First, it’s important to not shame your teen for not wanting to go to school. If they are able to communicate what they are feeling, physically or mentally, be supportive and listen to their concerns. You can talk to your teen about their reason for not wanting to attend school, and see if you can dig a little deeper. If they tell you that they feel sad at school, could it be they are having trouble connecting with their peers? If they are feeling angry, could it be that they are feeling frustrated or overwhelmed during class because they’re not being supported in the classroom? Not all teens will be able to articulate what is wrong, but by taking the time to listen to what they are able to tell you, they will feel supported.
Many teens on the autism spectrum thrive with schedules and routines. The beginning of a school year can be especially challenging for these students because they are not sure what to expect and everything is new. New faces, new classrooms, new schedules. All of this can be incredibly overwhelming. It can be helpful to help your teen practice get comfortable in their new environment even before classes start. Speak with their teacher and see if you can set up a meet and greet. Your teen will get a chance to meet their teacher in a calmer, more controlled environment. This can also help their teacher get to know your teen without the distractions of a full classroom. You may also be able to take a tour of the school, which will allow your child to learn how to navigate the hallways, find their classrooms, and even locate bathrooms. Having this knowledge upfront may make them more comfortable when it is time to start the school year.
If your teen is having negative feelings towards being at school, try to tap into the parts of school they do enjoy. For example, if they enjoy math class, talk with them about the math projects or subjects they have enjoyed. You can also look at enrolling them in a math club at school. They will be interacting with peers who also enjoy the same subject they do. This can make your teen feel more comfortable and confident, while also building positive associations around being at school.
It is also important to communicate with your teen’s teacher and the school administration. If your teen is showing symptoms of school refusal, schedule a meeting with your teen’s teacher to discuss the problem. You may also need to meet with school staff to craft an individualized educational plan (IEP) that addresses your teen’s needs. Some teens need to gradually reintegrate back to school, going to school in small doses as they get used to it. Working at home or with a tutor can help bridge this gap.
As a parent, there are options if your teen with ASD is struggling with going to school. If you believe that something may be wrong, it’s critical to reach out to a professional for guidance. A residential program designed specifically to work with teens with autism can be the answer. At Seven Stars, many of our students struggle with some form of anxiety disorder. Our intention is to help each student build, block by block, from a place of fear to a place of accomplishment. The overriding principle of “focusing on the positives” helps in this creating this foundation for success. The supportive staff and like-minded peers helps build on this foundation. Finally, our therapeutic-phased approach forms the basis by which we challenge and overcome the students’ fears.
Seven Stars Can Help
Seven Stars is a program that combines residential treatment with adventure therapy to create a multifaceted, effective program for adolescents, ages 13 to 18, struggling with emotional and behavioral issues as a result of their neurodevelopmental disorder.
We embed the objectives we have for each student into daily activities and teach emotional wellness skills such as conflict resolution, problem solving, social skills, academic skills, self-efficacy and prosocial behaviors. At Seven Stars, we strive to help our students develop the skills necessary to live full, productive lives.
For more information about treating school refusal at Seven Stars, contact us today at 844-601-1167.
Since 2003, Dr. Gordon Day has passionately helped young people with a wide range of family, emotional, social, neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems. Gordon’s mission has been to help people find their strengths and their own passion for living a full and rewarding life. He is particularly sensitive to the pressures, frustrations and disappointments that adolescents face that can sometimes cause them and their loved ones to want to withdraw and throw their hands up in despair.
Dr. Day knows that you really have to understand where a student is coming from and understand their patterns of strengths and needs. When we truly know an individual and their struggles, only then can we truly help.
Dr. Day has pioneered the use of outdoor therapy activities and outdoor living as a dynamic and effective therapeutic tool for learning, confidence building and skill building. His programs provide effective, supportive and encouraging environments that help students find their strengths and power.