School is back in session for most of our kids. It is easy for us to view that as their “work day” and therefore fall into the habit of viewing home time as being a break from work. With that frame of mind it is easy to slip into routines that build bad habits and may create more behavioral challenges at home when it’s not all considered leisure time or when boredom sets in.

For our kids with autism, we really do need to consider what happens when our kids get home from school. Most children with autism flourish with routine and structure built into their day. While we may feel they may have been taxed with a whole day of social interacting and constant learning demands at school, that does not mean that they automatically will do better with long periods of free time as a break from working. Actually, most school days have a good deal of “down time” built in.

Here are some simple ideas to consider for after school hours.

1. Remember to keep a balance of structure and down time.

Structure does not automatically mean hard work. When you put a puzzle together, you generally start with the structure of building the edges first. Why? Not because it is harder but because it makes it easier and therefore more enjoyable. Look for ways you can add structure and predictability to your child’s after school day. Even small tasks that can be organized with reliable steps can actually bring comfort to otherwise stressed situations. These don’t have to be big chores or even undesired tasks. Here’s one example. When Robby gets home, he empties out his lunch box and then sits at the table while he eats his snack of 2 cookies. If he is working on conversation with others, this is a good time for him to ask two questions or tell two things about school.   Two cookies help him keep count!   After that, Robby feeds the cat and then gets to choose between 30 minutes outside on the trampoline or hanging out with a family member playing a video game.

2. Balance out screen time and other experiences.

With tablets and smart phones, video games, and TV, screen time is huge and is a great time consumer and even functions to keep a kid busy while we get something else done. Typically developing or not, children are spending a great deal of their time facing the screen. Sometimes it is so much that the time infringes on the needs of a growing body and mind.   What frequently occurs with our children with autism is that they become so engaged in these activities, at the exclusion of interactions with other people, that whenever it is denied for any reason, we see problem behavior…almost addiction behaviors. Be sure that you have set rules and limitations that allow for only limited access and that all other access must be earned. Build expectations that unlimited screen time is not what happens as soon as the bus drops the child off.

3. Look for ways to make the learning at school meaningful at home.

Knowing that there is a good reason to be learning something makes it so much easier to learn! For our kids with autism, that connection and the generalization of skills learned at school must be planned. If Robby is learning to count, he needs real reasons to use numbers like counting out the silverware to set the table, or counting how many snack bags of chips are in the cabinet for his lunches. Will there be enough? When can he practice his understanding of fractions? By filling the tub half full? By pouring ¼ of cup of milk for the macaroni and cheese? What about the new language he is learning and the other important work he does at school? This should not be drill time or doing another worksheet and is not relegated to “homework” but can be built into daily life. Home and community is where the rubber meets the road and there should be real opportunities for him to use the skills he is gaining.

Of course, busy parents have lots to do besides being the constant companion and teacher to their child with autism. Some feel some guilt over not being able be that super parent all of the time but that is an unrealistic expectation. Strive for a balance of down time, screen time, structure, functional learning experiences and good routines built into the day and you and your child can both enjoy the time after the school bus pulls away.

~Information provided by Evelyn Horton, Youth Community Services Director.