Your child will be feeling miserable too. True school refusal is nothing to do with your child being naughty or bold, but more to do with fear and anxiety. They know you want them to go to school and they may want to go themselves, but they just can't.
When your child isn't coping, you're both dealing with school refusal every single morning. As a parent the same questions got through your mind every time: Will he go to school today? What should I say today? Should I try something new? Why is nothing working? What am I missing? It's very easy to blame yourself. To wonder what you could have done differently. And you live with that guilt all day. It stares you in the face every time you look at your child who should be in school.
Few statistics are available, but there is some evidence that school refusal tends to start or worsen during the teenage years. Anecdotally it seems that some teenagers blossom when they begin secondary school, while for others the combination of additional demands, lack of understanding and the uncertainties of puberty prove too much. And school refusal does seem to be more common among teenagers on the autism spectrum. They face so many potential difficulties in secondary school: from their hatred of homework, to sensory overwhelm, not understanding instructions, and the lack of supervision in corridors and school yards.
Many teachers in mainstream schools are interested, aware and open to accommodating pupils on the autism spectrum. But some are not. Some appear to believe that providing a special needs assistant magically removes all additional needs. Or they may believe that it is better for the child to be treated the same as everyone else and not be marked out as "different".
There are no easy answers. How each family tackles school refusal will depend on the family dynamic, how the child's school operates and whether there are any alternatives. The following is what I've learned so far, and I'd love to add to it, if you have any thoughts.
Options for when your child is off school
1. Deny access to consoles and computers for the duration of the school day, except for supervised educational purposes. The child may accept and understand this as he realises that he should be learning during the hours that he is supposed to be in school.
2. Make life at home boring. Some parents have solved school refusal by making time off school dull and demanding, insisting that their child does school work and chores. But not every child on the spectrum responds well to demands and consequences. Sometimes it's about easing your child back into school in a way that suits them.
3. Spend the time with your child, doing agreed activities and hopefully they will begin to feel less anxious and you will have the opportunity to find out what is really bothering them.
How to help your child go back to school
If your aim is to get your child back into school, then sooner is better than later. Your child is missing out on their education and the longer the absence, the harder it is to go back. The fear of being asked why you were out and trying to catch up with what you missed is added to the fear of school itself. For parents each day of school refusal means that plans have to be changed, jobs and appointments deferred and employment becomes almost impossible. Yet when you're all stuck in the moment, days or even weeks can pass by with little progress.
1. Sometimes the solution can be found in standard autism strategies such as reassuring picture schedules that show each step of the morning routine or a reward chart to encourage school attendance.
2. If your child has already missed more than the legally allowed number of absences a year then it can be a good idea to contact your local school attendance service (TUSLA in Ireland) and explain the situation - and they may be able to provide some help too.
3. Teenagers may have specific reasons why they are refusing to go to school, and may not go back unless these can be addressed. Working with your child may be the way to solve the problem: my favourite method is in The Explosive Child, and any family can benefit from using the techniques in this book, not just families living with special needs.
4. You've probably already been in contact with the school and your child's service provider, but once you know what is really bothering your child, then you can hopefully agree a plan for them to return to school with the supports or changes that they need to feel comfortable again. I'm discovering just how many school rules can be broken or bent if you ask the right people in the right way.
Of course sometimes the school-related problems are so great that a return is not possible or school refusal becomes so chronic that there seems to be no way to ensure consistent attendance. But your child is entitled to an education and there are alternatives. Here is Ireland they include home tuition, home education or finding a more suitable school (which is a lot harder than it sounds). There are also outside agencies that can help such the Middletown Centre for Autism.
School refusal is both complex and head wrecking for everyone involved, and the stories I've heard would easily fill a book, but that's for another day. Wishing you the very best if it something that affects your child.
The following is a very important comment from one reader who found the first two options harsh:
“I’m scared that some people will continue punishing their children for school refusal when the issues are far bigger than they realise, and I'm scared some of these children will feel NO-ONE is listening to them and will take their own life. This isn't being overly dramatic, sadly I've had to try and help several families whose children have committed suicide, so I take the CHILD'S cry for help very seriously here, and it's the PARENTS' responsibility to listen to their child.
I feel a loving, listening approach is a better place to come from than a banning, grounding one.
Sadly some people out there don't seem ready or possibly able to take responsibility, and many deeply distressed children may be faced with equal hostility and stress from their own parents which can lead to them feeling there's only one way out. Ireland has the highest number of suicides of young adults between the ages of 15-22 in the whole of Europe, and I feel the way the education system is, is a part of that.”
This is Part 1 in a series about school refusal, click on the links below to read the other posts:
Part 2: What Every Parent Needs to Know About School Refusal
Part 3: Alternatives to School for Teenagers.