School Started – How to Help Your Children with Autism and ADHD

One of our busiest times of the year is October, actually. Four-to-six weeks into the school year, many issues arise which require some sort of attention, or else it feels as if everything is going to fall apart. Focus. Anxiety. Fear. Teachers. Schoolmates. Non-preferred activities. Recess (though, that is usually everybody’s favorite) can be problematic, since that is often pull-out or tutoring time, or bullying can occur. Even lunch can be an issue for the children on special diets.

Sleep, exercise and food – paying attention to these simple activities can make a huge difference in the new semester.

The first activity that often needs to be addressed is sleep. Throughout the summer, the children have gone to bed later and later, and now that schedule needs to be re-aligned. This is no small matter. Who wants to learn a non-preferred subject when they can’t concentrate? For students with a short fuse, lack of REM sleep adds fuel to the explosive power of a meltdown. For those with social issues, the inability to get along is furthered by poor circadian rhythm. There is no area of your child’s development which cannot be improved with a good night’s sleep.

For some patients who are on stimulant medication, parents and professionals might consider changing the timing of the medication so that the child can fall asleep at the desired time. Some children will just unravel by the time school is over and so evenings and homework are a unpleasant chore. Instead of increasing the dose or adding a second medication, it could be prudent to split dosages when possible and determine the best time to get the best results. For patients taking guanfacine or other blood pressure meds, giving the primary dose just after school or at bedtime could be helpful since the sleepiness could be worn off by the morning, but the anti-anxiety effects continue into the school day.

In any case, I have found that melatonin is a wonderful supplement that can get things going in the right direction. Although there is great concern about the hormone (especially on the web), it is safe and effective. Compared to all of the other ‘real’ medications that may have to take, there are rarely any side effects. Vivid dreams may be an indication that the child has not been getting enough REM sleep, so don’t give up if that symptom ensues. One of the most important elements in this strategy is the development of a ‘normal’ daily rhythm by administering the supplement ~ 30 minutes prior to the desired sleep time, every night, including weekends.

Optimizing nutrition for children with developmental challenges is another important factor for a smoother Fall. I write lots of letters asking the school’s assistance by paying attention to students who require special diets. Junk and pre-processed food have been reported to affect neuro-typical children’s school performance and many parents have observed negative effects in their own children. Although it is controversial, many parents report learning and hyperactive problems when their children consume both natural and artificial sweeteners. In my experience with ADHD behaviors, it is the artificial coloring, flavoring and preservatives which can cause even more learning problems.

Proper exercise is the final key element that will help insure a better transition to the school year. The children have so many challenges during the day, then therapies and after-school (usually indoor) activities. Remember when we used to play outside until your mother called you to dinner? Even bouncing on a trampoline for a while can help get the jitters out. Physical activity helps focus during homework, getting sleepy at bedtime and feeling hungry at dinnertime. “There is simply not enough time for exercise,” is not an option. At least find the time to take the children out on weekends.

Appropriate  sleep, food and exercise. It’s not rocket science, but it is an effective strategy that can help your child achieve more success. It’s old advice, but, hey, I’m an old doc.

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Brian D. Udell MD
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