Making a safe descent into the school year’s end

You are finally here – home stretch. Summer looms in the near future. Dreams of relaxation, family, and adventure propel you forward.

But, there is still work to do…and your energy….is… waning…exhaustion sets in as the last leg of the marathon lies ahead.

Nerves frayed. Patience weakening.  Field trips and year end activities wreak havoc on schedules.  Year-end assessments, report cards, unit completion – so much to do to bring the school year to a close in spite of dwindling inner resources.

And then – there are the kids we teach; lethargy has set in for some and for others, a constant state of antsiness shapes their school day.  Other ‘shiny objects’ grab their attention – prom, parties, sports, sunshine, sleep, the great outdoors. Anything but, academics and education. Like us, our students are becoming unglued.

Students with autism are no different.  Well, actually, that’s not completely true. They experience all of the above and then some added challenges as the school year winds down.

For many, the loosened schedules, changes in routine, and the increase in frenetic activity create an overwhelm that is beyond what many of us can even imagine. From the time daylight savings changes the clocks, havoc is instigated in the lives of those living with autism. For those who are highly tuned into visual cues, moving the clock forward as summer nears, breaks that pattern of going to sleep when it’s dark outside and waking up after the sun comes up.  An inconvenience to us, daylight savings can take weeks and weeks of adjustment for people with autism.

Not only does the physical world change come spring, but, by its very nature, a brain with autism has structural and functional differences that can add some hardships to coping with the ‘end of the school year environment.’ These differences can contribute to emotional dysregulation, lack of self-control and the resulting ‘poor behavior.’

In brains with autism, some of the neural networks experience a disconnection that cause information to be processed differently. One area of the brain fails to communicate efficiently with another area when “long distance” integration needs to happen: during social interactions, reading and writing, to name a few examples. This leaves a student with autism processing information less efficiently or inadequately.

An already compromised capacity for cognitive load is further reduced by tiredness, increased stress, and time constraints to name a few factors. In the race to complete units, finish covering curriculum and meet external pressures, educators may be unintentionally fueling an already smoldering fire.

Think about it: if our brain is processing information more slowly, but, the outside world is pushing more information, at a faster rate with the added stress of time limits,  it stands to reason that our world will feel even more chaotic and overwhelmed.

To make matters worse, the parts of the brain that are supposed to balance emotions and reasoning are also impacted by autism. An impromptu game of baseball outside instead of the regular class in the gym may be perceived as a serious threat to your student in a similar way that a near collision in your car would feel like a threat! The emotional reactivity of the limbic system leads to far too many ‘fight, flight or freeze’ situations for

The emotional reactivity of the limbic system leads to far too many ‘fight, flight or freeze’ situations for person with autism. Then, in a cruel way,  rather than helping to calm the smoldering fire of emotions, the cerebral cortex,  goes ‘offline’ leaving a person unable to talk to themselves and reassure themselves that this is not a real threat to safety.

And in case you are wondering – NO, we cannot use our own reasoning to verbally explain anything to someone once they are ‘hijacked by emotions.’ Doing so is as effective as telling a woman in the process of giving birth to a baby, to just “Relax.”

Also wreaking havoc at a physiological level is the fact that many of our students with autism are also dealing with sensory processing issues: being highly sensitive or extremely under-sensitive to the six senses. Everyday sensations such as light, sounds, touch can be messed up! Spring ushers in a whole new set of assaults in the form of allergies, heat, rain and wind!

Stanley Greenspan, the author of The Challenging Child: Understanding, Raising, and Enjoying the Five “Difficult” Types of Children offers an insightful analogy to help us understand what people experience when they can not effectively process, or interpret sensory input.

“Imagine driving a car that isn’t working well. When you step on the gas the car sometimes lurches forward and sometimes doesn’t respond. When you blow the horn it sounds blaring. The brakes sometimes slow the car, but not always. The blinkers work occasionally, the steering is erratic, and the speedometer is inaccurate. You are engaged in a constant struggle to keep the car on the road, and it is difficult to concentrate on anything else.”

Sensory dysfunction can wreak havoc on social interactions, learning, eating, sleeping, and a sense of well -being.  Our kids with autism are carrying an enormous ‘load’ as they navigate this season.

It is fair to say that humans cannot ‘snap out of’ neurological wiring because someone else demands that they do so. The kid who knows a pretty consistent routine and schedule for most of a school year is going to have a legitimately hard time coping with a changing schedule or a lack of schedule.  Increased chaos in the environment, increased task demands, and time demands make the gradual slide into the summer holidays more of a rapid descent for our students living with autism.

It is far too easy for anyone who does not have autism to think that the increase in meltdowns and poor behavior choices are something that the student chooses. Given our own diminished energy, it makes sense that we cannot take ‘much more’ at this point.  We too are ready to snap. It is no wonder they are.

So, what can we do?

I believe the answer starts with changing the question.

Ross Greene suggest that, instead of asking yourself, ‘What’s it going to take to motivate this kid to behave differently?’ ask ‘Why is this so hard for this child? What’s getting in his way? How can I help?”

In the next post, Creating Safe Landings as the School Year Ends, we will look at ways to mitigate the triggers and truly help our students with and without autism, transition through this exciting but exhausting time.

Be sure to tell me what you think.

What strategies and tools have you found to be helpful for students with autism as the school year winds down? And for yourself? 


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  1. Mona Blaker July 4, 2017 at 12:08 am - Reply

    Great post!

  2. Esther Wanjihia September 12, 2017 at 4:25 am - Reply

    Really insightful and gives me concrete ideas on what to be aware of when I notice a shift in behavior & coping skills during that time period.

  3. Jennifer November 22, 2017 at 1:02 am - Reply

    Thak you for your feedback Mona and Esther! I appreciate it!

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