What to do when an autistic child refuses to go to school

Since the beginning of COVID, school attendance has declined in Australia. So what do you do when your autistic child refuses to go to school?

While school attendance nationally normally sits around 90%, there were drops in the past couple of years down to 70% and even 50% at different times according to ACARA’s report. While much of this can be attributed to sickness and the COVID pandemic, there are other reasons why students refuse to attend school even without lockdowns and fear of getting sick.

What about autistic children and school?

According to ABS data from 2015, almost 97% of autistic children had some form of ‘educational restriction’. A very small number were unable to attend any school due to disability, and 48% accessed education through special schools or special classes.

Surprisingly, 84% of those attending school reported difficulties. These ranged from difficulties fitting in social, learning difficulties, communication difficulties and difficulty sitting.

Help! My child refuses to go to school. Why?

There are many reasons why a child might refuse to go to school. They include:

  • students feel disengaged – they don’t feel that the learning at school connects to them or is relevant to what they want to do
  • there are mental health concerns – they experience high levels of anxiety, depression or other related mental health issues that stops them from being well enough to learn
  • students are being harassed or bullied at school – they don’t want to go to school because it doesn’t feel safe, they don’t feel like they belong or have a trusted social network (friends) at school
  • autistic students aren’t having their disability-related needs met at school (or other learning needs or disability related needs) – they struggle with being punished, misunderstood or isolated because their learning, physical, sensory and disability needs aren’t being met
  • students have responsibilities or disruptions at home such as caring for younger children, working to bring in income or a chaotic home life (or even homelessness) – they can’t make it to school because they are too tired, hungry or have competing demands on their time

What to do when a child refuses to go to school?

It’s exhausting and the easy option is often to allow kids to stay home. It can be easier to stay home than go through conflict and fights and crying to get a child to school, only to have them refuse to leave the car once you get there. It’s disruptive to adult working life, and stressful for everyone.

A bit like the brains’ response to stress, we can flight or fight.

Flight: take time off school if refusing to go to school

Our autistic children attend mainstream school full time. However there are still many days when our children have used up their social energy reserves and need to recharge. 5 day school weeks with 10 week terms is a long time to keep social batteries charged and deal with the loud noise, lights, crowds and learning demands at school. We’ll take what we call “autistic mental health days” whenever needed (a couple times a term). Taking a breather is also helpful if there have been incidents, harassment, or meltdowns at school. Our kids need a longer time to process emotions and get to a point where they’re ready to re-enter school.

However, there are other children that need mental health recharge days every week. Sometimes it’s best to negotiate a part time attendance with built in days off to allow for that sensory recharge. This can be an effective strategy to maintain engagement with school throughout mental health episodes and responsibilities at home.

Flight: change schools or schooling environment

If the school isn’t open to negotiating attendance, the flight might involve changing schools. This is a big step and may not even make a difference. However, if changing schools is an option for you, there may be other schools with better supports. In particular, if you felt that you’ve advocated for your disability needs and haven’t been listened to, you may find better supports, interventions, programs and sensory environments at another school.

This is what happened with us. Our son started his schooling in one school. He was constantly punished, sent to the Principal’s office, isolated outside and told off for his autism. Even after the diagnosis and report we didn’t see changes in classroom practice to accommodate his sensory and learning needs. We were being called up every week to collect him from school early. This including being sent home on Sports Day after only a short time. That school didn’t have the resources necessary to support our child and he was being repeatedly removed from class (and we were having interrupted days having to pick him up early constantly). So we changed mainstream schools and have found much better support, understanding and sensory interventions and programs for him.

Alternative schooling and pathway options

There are also alternative schools that exist with deliberate part time schedules. Some schools have short weeks of about 3 days, and others are set up to be online/distance such as Open Access and Victoria’s first private online school. There are also special schools that are inclusive of disabilities and have appropriate supports in place for children that cannot access mainstream education. FLO (Flexible Learning Options) is another option which is often part time. There are also many flexible ways to achieve SACE, including VET and recognition of outside learning. And there are many pathways beyond school including TAFE, apprenticeships, work, entrepreneurship and University. In addition, homeschooling has also increased dramatically across Australia, although it’s still only represents 0.5% of the total school population.

Fight: advocate strongly for your needs

If you feel the needs of your child isn’t being met, you need to advocate strongly. Be proactive and open in communicating with school. Let teachers know what you are working on in therapies. One of the best outcomes we got was when we gave permission for teachers to talk directly to our psychologist. The teachers called the psychologist and got timely, relevant and effective strategies. This made terrible days (think hiding under a desk making noises all day) into good days (actually engaging in learning). Be specific about sensory, learning and regulation adjustments you want. Many times the school may not have thought of it. For example, having a low light area in the classroom that isn’t as bright to provide less visual sensory input.

Apart from connecting teachers with therapists, one of the best forms of communicating about a child is a One Pager. This document outlines the child’s sensory needs, and their strengths and interests. It also includes what doesn’t work for them, and what support they need in their learning. It helps teachers understand how to best support your child in a simple to access document. A template is provided here if you want to make your own One Pager.

If bullying is the issue, advocate for a resolution, change of class, break time supports or a plan of action.

Fight: Work with therapists to address the causes of school refusal

There will be reasons why there is school refusal. Fight to address these causes, whether mental health, bullying, or other.

This may include working with specialists, accessing medication or therapies. Different therapists can support you in different ways, from speech pathologists, psychologists and occupational therapists.

Build up your support network of friends, social supports, therapists and teachers. This can also be helpful for the child. The greater their sense of belonging and connection to a school, they more likely they will be engaged and happy there.

It’s also important to look after your own self-care as a parent.

Conclusion: what to do when a child refuses to go to school

There are many reasons why a child refuses to go to school. Addressing those causes is important.

Sometimes a short break from school (a short-term flight) is enough to recharge and be well enough for learning again.

Other times a permanent flight is required, with a change of school, schooling mode or pathway.

Alternatively, the fight option is to advocate strongly and work with therapists to address the root cause where possible.

No matter what response (or all of them!), it’s important to stay positive. Continue to emphasis the importance of education and be positive about learning. Try not to say that learning isn’t important. Avoid saying that you don’t need any education to do alright in the world.

It can also be useful to not celebrate wins (an intentional nonchalance). Being too vocal or excited about little wins can put pressure and anxiety on children.

There is often no quick fix when a child refuses to go to school. But there are many amazing educational communities out there that are inclusive, and supportive. There are also many online supports such as:

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