Ways To Decrease Back-to-School Anxiety

By Sally Dean, M.S., BCBA, LBS

Many children experience anxiety when it is time to go back to school. For kids with an autism spectrum disorder this can be especially true. Families can make this transition easier by doing a few simple things to decrease the worries and fears associated with the return to school.

Parents and caregivers can reduce a child’s “back to school” anxiety by using the following techniques:

  • Mark on the family calendar when the first day of school will be so the child is aware of the upcoming change.
  • Begin to structure the day so that it is similar to the child’s school day. No staying up late or sleeping in.
  • Have the child engage in meaningful activities that relate to their favorite academic subjects instead of watching television or playing video games.
  • Plan a visit to the child’s school. This is a wonderful way for the child to see their classroom, meet their teachers, and even get an idea of what their schedule will look like when classes begin.
  • Talk about positive things associated with school such as learning innovative ideas, seeing peers, and creating new friendships.
  • Practice with children reciprocal conversation skills so they can feel confident talking to classmates they have not seen in several months.
  • Point out to children who worry about changes all the things that are still the same in their life, from the smallest to the biggest detail. This technique can be really helpful in reducing anxiety.
  • Plan a “back to school “celebration by having a special dinner or by making a favorite dessert. This is wonderful “pairing” approach to change a child’s attitude from fear and worry to one of positive expectations and excitement for the coming school year.

Using these strategies is likely to make the process of returning to school a much more positive experience that can be enjoyed by all. For more information, please contact us at Sdean@Deanbehavioral.com

Sally Dean, Dean Behavioral Consulting, LLC


Afraid to Drive: Look to the Helpers

My daughter, 17 years old and autistic, was crying inconsolably last night. It’s one of the most difficult things for a parent to experience, especially when the reason for the upset isn’t readily apparent.

“What happened?” I asked.

Tear flooded eyes locked just past my gaze. “I’m afraid to drive.”

And I knew what she meant.

“Me too,” I said. “But I know that there’s people who can help.”

The Helpers

Times of despair such as we as a nation are experiencing after multiple mass shootings, evolve into a collective grief that can’t readily be put into words, if ever. We are grieving, and coping with grief can be aided by, as Mr. Rogers said, looking to the helpers.

When we think of crisis, we often think of first responders, those on the scenes during tragic situations. The helpers. But help can come in many forms. Autism Connection received a note from a volunteer from the 2022 Pittsburgh Marathon about their experience. When I asked if I could use this piece, they said, “It seems so insignificant considering the magnitude of current events.”

But it is significant.

A Message from a Quiet Helper

“I’ve always thought the Marathon was a real pain in the ass, mostly because of the inconvenience it sometimes caused me. Like being stuck in traffic and rerouted around the city because the Marathon shuts down many streets for hours.

And so, when I recently found myself standing on Carson Street with a group of volunteers from Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, handing out cups of water to runners in this year’s race, I was doing something that was…well, weird for me: supporting—voluntarily! —an event that I really didn’t like.  Plus, it was pouring out. And very early in the morning. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is going to be a very, very long day…’

Turns out it was a great day, and I experienced several moments of true gratitude. As I watched the thousands of runners pass by—some running effortlessly, many others clearly struggling—my feelings about the Marathon began to change.

There were a LOT of runners, with different body types and different abilities. Of course, there were those at the head of the pack and they seemed to fly by. But most of them were just like the rest of us—in the middle of the pack—struggling through the challenges of their day.

These were all people trying to achieve a goal that they had set.  Not all of them would, but they were trying, in the rain, just like me. And maybe, with a word of encouragement and a cup of water, I could help them reach that goal.

And any inconvenience the Marathon may have caused me in the past? Please. Compared to many people, my struggles are very minimal and I take so much for granted.

So, thank you Pittsburgh Marathon. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to get outside myself. And maybe help make somebody’s journey a little easier.

With a cup of water!

Imagine that.”

Afraid to Drive

My daughter’s voice, her way of communicating her grief, came in unexpected ways. But she was able to put into words—her own words—what many of us are feeling. We may be afraid to drive, but we keep driving forward.

A Note of Thanks

Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, a lifeline and hub for the autistic community, is deeply grateful to the helpers, the first responders, and the ones who quietly move the world into a more peaceful, loving place of acceptance.


Pittsburgh Marathon 2022: Water

Autism Connection’s team joined forces with a slew of dedicated volunteers at the 2022 Pittsburgh Marathon.

It was 6:00 in the morning, and we were surrounded by water; gallons and gallons of water waiting to fill paper cups. There were heavy clouds weighted with water above us. Under Fluid Captain, Norm’s, direction, volunteers quickly assembled paper cups, filled them, then placed cardboard slats on them so we could layer the cups in stacks three layers high.

We were cold. Large droplets slowly slapped the tables. Norm handed out rain ponchos with a kind, insightful smile, “You’re gonna need this.”

Norm, Marathon Fluid Captain older man holding Autism Connection flag

Norm, Fluid Captain for 2022 Pittsburgh Marathon

We braced for runners and rain. Hand cyclists whizzed past so quickly some volunteers thought they were motorized vehicles. Then the first marathon runners glided by. It was captivating, and we seemed to lose awareness of the rain pellets.

The lead runners moved with seemingly little effort. Those that followed showed signs of struggle and determination as some reached for cups of water. Each captured cup was a triumph.

We were soaked. There was a quick streak of lightning and a thunderclap, and we braced for more. But when the clouds released, a thunderous rumble of cheering voices burst through the deluge. The harder it rained, the harder we cheered. And the runners pushed forward.

We faced challenges, white numbed hands, soaked shoes, road closures, barriers, and rain.

But that’s what the autism community does. We acknowledge and overcome obstacles. We circumvent barriers and face challenges head on.  We accept the downpours and try to make the best of them, with the belief they will let up at some point.

And sometimes we cheer as we persevere.


Monday’s Spontaneous Promise

This post-Easter Monday morning started with grey skies and a black cup of coffee, but things became colorful in an instant. What I thought would be a quiet beginning to my fourth week as Director of Operations for Autism Connection turned out to be delightfully busy, and quite literally, energetic. I was settled at my desk, setting priorities for the upcoming week, but the morning had other plans.

We had an unexpected visit from a local father and son who were looking for guidance in transitioning from school to work. The young man filled the building with vibrant energy and immense curiosity as he explored the offices, halls, and the contents of the refrigerator, before gravitating to Lu’s office for a talk. We found resources, and we found systemic issues that need to be addressed.

After our guests departed, we hopped on a meeting with a local elementary school principal to plan an assembly for students so they can learn about the autism spectrum, inclusion, and kindness. In the midst of this meeting, we had another visitor who popped in to say hello. She introduced herself to the principal on the virtual call, and he was delighted by the interruption.

This is a good sign.

As Lu and I debriefed, we got a call concerning an incarcerated adult who is in dire need of help, ranging from diagnosis to placement. The call served as a reminder that misunderstood behavior and miscommunication can lead to catastrophic results for people in the autism community. We brainstormed ways to help, and we explored what needs to be done to keep it from happening again.

All of this before 11:00 AM.

Setting a plotted schedule for the week is important, but sometimes the most significant priorities arrive unexpectedly. The beauty of Autism Connection is its ability to adjust to the needs of our community and the grand spontaneity that comes with working in this field.

This is a good sign.