After-School Chaos

With few exceptions, afternoons and evenings are chaos for most families with school-aged children. Because many youngsters with autism do not deal well with the mayhem of after-school activities, irregular meal times, and the disarray caused by unpredictable schedules each night, school night stress can be multiplied in their families. How can we help these kids tolerate the bedlam?

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1. REVIEW DAILY SCHEDULE. Rather than expecting a youngster with autism to just go with the flow, inform them about your plans for the afternoon and evening. Reduce agitation and anxiety by taking a few minutes immediately after school to review a written or picture schedule with your kid. No need to include exact times, but do review anticipated after-school activities for that day, the snack and supper menu, and reminders about regular evening events such as homework, bath, chores, and bedtime.

2. TEACH FLEXIBILITY. Include a large question mark in the written schedule. Point to the question mark and say something like this, “I wonder what surprises we will see today?” Remind your youngster with autism that change is part of daily life. Teach them to be flexible and take change into stride. One of my pre-teen friends with autism who is particularly inflexible keeps a laminated card in her pocket with a big question mark and a photo of her laughing. On the back, we wrote the phrase, “Oh, well. These things happen!” When family life gets particularly chaotic on a school night, she sometimes sits holding her card and rocking vigorously, repeating the phrase, “Oh, well. These things happen!” Her parents and teen-age brother decided they want a similar card since she seems to be dealing with the mayhem better than anyone in the family!

3. MODEL FLEXIBILITY. It certainly helps our inflexible friends with autism if we can remain calm when something unexpected happens or when a schedule must be changed at the last minute. Although the stress of school nights can make us all impatient and grumpy, an outward demeanor of contentment and humor can help decrease agitation and meltdowns. One parent of three kids made a pledge to remain flexible on school nights this year. She reported that her son with autism has not yet had even one emotional explosion – a very common occurrence last year. She said, “Even when I feel as if I am at the end of my rope on a school night, I just pretend like all is well. My son seems much more content, and, interestingly, so do the other kids!”

TIP FOR THE DAY: We can decrease stress and increase flexibility by keeping our friends with autism informed about the general schedule on school nights, and by helping them learn to anticipate and react calmly to unexpected events and schedule changes.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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