Tips for Autistic Young People Coping with School

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Young autistic people have many gifts. They may have incredible memories, deep empathy for others, and passionate interests. But some parts of daily life can be challenging – sometimes very challenging – for autistic young people. Without proper support and understanding, these challenges can start to affect their mental health.

Many people struggle with aspects of school life, but for autistic people, it can be especially difficult. They may understand teachers’ instructions differently, find it hard to navigate the complexities of social life, and struggle with loud corridors or busy rooms.

With consideration from others, young autistic people can develop strategies to manage many of these difficulties and make school life easier and more enjoyable.

Coping With Sensory Challenges

Many young autistic people have sensory differences. This means that they may be oversensitive or undersensitive to sound, light, smell, and touch.

It’s common for autistic young people to find loud spaces – like school corridors or dining halls – overwhelming. Sensory overload can cause stress, anxiety, and even physical pain.

To cope with loud and busy spaces, there are a few things young autistic people can try. They may like to:

  • Wear noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs when studying, moving around school, or in loud classrooms.
  • Carry objects that can help to release stress, like soft items, fidget toys, or things with nice textures.
  • Take ‘safe snacks’ that they can always eat
  • Wear clothes that feel comfortable
  • Go to a sensory room or quiet room when they need to

Taking Breaks

Taking breaks to de-stress during the school day can help young people manage anxiety and distress, have more energy, and avoid an autistic meltdown or shutdown. 

Autistic meltdowns and shutdowns are responses to situations of over-stimulation or high anxiety. Some people compare them to the body’s fight and freeze responses to stress.

During a meltdown, an autistic person may experience increased anxiety or distress that may seem like frustration or an aggressive panic attack. During a shutdown, they may stop talking or struggle to communicate like they normally do.

Meltdowns and shutdowns often happen after a build-up of stress and tension, sometimes over a period of time. Scheduling time during the day to de-compress can help prevent this.

Young autistic people may:

  • Take time out or use break times to do an activity they enjoy, like colouring or listening to music
  • Go to a sensory room or quiet room

Following Routines

Many autistic people find daily life much easier to manage when there are fixed routines. Unexpected changes or uncertainty can feel very stressful and make everything else feel harder to cope with.

Autistic teenagers and adolescents often benefit from the routine and structure of the school day. Clear timetables and scheduled lessons also help young people know what to expect from the day ahead. But sometimes changes still happen that are out of our control.

Autistic young people may find it helpful to follow other routines that can stay the same even when other things change.

This might mean walking the same way to school or between classrooms, having an after-school routine like eating a snack or watching TV, or reading a book on the school bus. 

Navigating Social Life

Some autistic traits can make navigating social life at times a challenge. When young autistic people enter adolescence, they often find that friendships and peer groups become more complex and harder to understand. Autistic people may find that:

  • they communicate differently to other people
  • they take things literally that other people intend to mean something else
  • they find it harder to understand social cues and verbally express emotions
  • they find social situations like parties overwhelming

While some autistic people prefer to spend time alone, many others want – and need – companionship. Unfortunately, a lack of understanding about autism and acceptance from others can lead to peer rejection, loneliness, and other consequences for their mental health.

With consideration from others, young autistic people can build strong and trusting friendships. They may sometimes need space in social settings or for their friends to explain what’s going on in certain situations but with respect and care from others, these challenges are manageable.

Many young autistic people describe the importance of learning to love and to be themselves – and to believe that they can lead a happy, social, and fulfilling life.

Managing Exam Season

Exams can be difficult for autistic young people. Exams are often an unpredictable experience that may cause anxiety or distress.

Young autistic people may also lack the motivation to do exams and find it hard to understand their purpose when they already have the knowledge. They may also find it hard to concentrate for the duration of the exam or be overwhelmed by the sensory experience of an exam hall.

Making a revision timetable can reduce stress in exam season and create structure and routine. It’s good to include time-off in the revision timetable, for food, drinks, exercise, and other things.

They can also think about how to revise in a way that works best for them – what time of day they can study best, where they would like to be, and who they like to study with (or if they prefer to be alone).

Before an exam, they may want to use relaxation techniques or do other activities that help them to relax. This can reduce anxiety both before and during the exam.

Using Support Structures

Depending on the country, schools and school systems may be able to offer additional support for autistic young people. They may have access to:

  • a safe, quiet, or sensory room
  • support during exams
  • mentoring
  • specialist autism support
  • financial advice

If you’re not sure what support a young person is entitled to where you live, you may be able to contact a national autism charity or local support group, which exist in many countries. Mental health professionals and social workers may also be able to connect you with experts or offer advice themselves.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Mental Health Support for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers dedicated mental health programs for young people, supporting them to plan and build fulfilling futures.

Our approach sets the global standard for teenage and adolescent mental health support, combining clinical excellence with education, social responsibility, and a gap year experience.

Through our programs, young people build life skills, grow in self-confidence, and reconnect with themselves and their love of life.

Situated in Malaysia, our centre offers enriching opportunities to spend time in nature, explore the local area, learn traditional skills, work together with others, and build life-long friendships.

With expert mental health professionals, support staff, and other specialists there at all times, young people in our centre have 24/7 access to all the care they need. Our team includes specialists in neurodiverse conditions such as autism spectrum disorder who can support them through any challenges they face.

If you’re interested in our programs, please get in touch today. We’re here for you.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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