Using the Calendar to Manage Back To School Anxiety

I think all kids get a little anxious about going back to school. What will their new teacher(s) be like? Will their best friend be in their class? It’s tough for all kids, and even their parents. But for a child with Autism, it can be even tougher due to difficulties around being able to express how they are feeling.

My 13-year-old son loves school. But he’s showing signs of anxiety as we look ahead to school starting next week. He communicates with me mostly via text messaging, even if he’s sitting in the same room with me. He’s on a trip with his dad this week and will return the day before school starts.

After he left, I got this text from him,

“Get my PE shirt in my room in the anchors and put it in my backpack so I could wear it to PE”

He’s thinking about school and what he needs to bring on the first day. PE happens to be his favorite class with his favorite teacher. Before he left, I told him I’d get his school supplies together, but I didn’t mention the PE shirt.

Today, I got this text from him,

“Next Tuesday after school you’ll drop me off at 11:30 and on next Wednesday the bus will be coming back on bus 45 like last year”

He knows the first day of school, the Tuesday after Labor Day, is a half day. In this text, he’s trying to understand how he’ll get to school that day and also confirm that the next day, Wednesday, when the typical school schedule starts up again, he’ll be riding the bus to school like last year – and that it’s the same bus.

With our typical kids, we can talk with them and help answer questions about the things they are wondering about, the things that make them anxious. But with my son, that doesn’t work. What DOES work for us, is using an electronic calendar.

I set up an account for my son and then I shared his calendar with myself so that I could easily add information to the calendar directly from my account. When you share a calendar from one account with another, the other person gets an email telling them that the calendar has been shared with them and then this calendar shows up in their calendar list. When you share it, you can decide if the other person can just read the calendar or you can give them the ability to actually add items and change things. I keep my son’s calendar “turned off” most of the time so it doesn’t clutter my work schedule but when I need to add something, I can easily toggle it back into view, add what I need and it’s done.

I’ve given my son a smart phone so he can text with me in order to communicate with me. But the calendar is our second method of communication. My son remembers schedules really well, AFTER they are established. But as we try to establish new routines, the calendar is key.

Over this past summer, he went to camp with Outdoors For All. They schedule camps a week in advance with different activities everyday. When the schedule is sent, I add the details to my son’s calendar, including things he needs to bring. For example, if they are swimming that day, he needs to bring a swim suit and towel, wear sun screen and remember to bring a lunch. If they are hiking, I add a note in his calendar to “wear hiking boots” and he takes care of the rest.

The calendar gives my son a sense of control. And because I can let him know what is going on and add information about what he needs to bring to camp or to school, he gets the independence that he desperately needs to have, especially as he enters these teenage years.

When schedules change or the routine has exceptions, this can also cause anxiety for any child, but especially children with Autism. I also use the calendar to help manage these changes. For example, my son has guitar practice every Tuesday evening with his step dad.

Guitar Practice

If the guitar instructor cancels due to illness, I go into the calendar and change the appointment from “Guitar Practice” to “No Guitar Practice – Peter is sick today”. My son checks his calendar after school. When he sees this, he knows the schedule has changed, knows what to expect, and there’s no issue.

No Guitar Practice

You may wonder, why don’t you just tell him that practice has been cancelled? With my son, it takes multiple times for a verbal message to register. And if the babysitter is the one passing along the message, for some reason, my son doesn’t believe her! But if it’s written in the calendar, he believes it. I know he needs visual aids to help him comprehend things. The written item in the context of this day and time in his calendar is how he understands the changes.

When he was young, we started with visual schedules. This is a common tool for younger children with Autism. But as our son has learned to read and as his interest in electronic devices has grown, his schedule has grown up to be just like an adult who manages their work schedule in Outlook. And his ability to understand schedules may be one of my key tools to helping him be an independent adult someday.

Thank You to Steve B for his Support of Families Dealing with Autism

The world is learning this morning that Steve Ballmer is leaving Microsoft.  I’ll be sad to see him go.  Under his leadership, Microsoft has allowed me to help my son with Autism in ways that I don’t think would be possible at any other company.

In October 2005, I left a very promising job at to join Microsoft.  I loved my job and my team at Amazon but the benefits at Microsoft, especially the benefits specific to Autism therapies, were better at Microsoft than anywhere else.

I went from paying out of pocket for my Program Manager AND my ABA therapists (who were working 25 hours per week at the time) to having that covered at 80% as well as no caps on speech therapy or occupational therapy visits.  The dollar value to me was at least $45,000 per year!  Microsoft also has a philosophy behind it’s benefits where the goal is to take care of their employees so that they can take care of their families — so they can actually focus on their jobs.  They have that right.  I spent countless hours on the phone with insurance companies before joining Microsoft to get them to actually cover the things that they were supposed to.  Microsoft has spared me that stress and hassle so I can focus on my career AND the needs of my son and family.

I had the opportunity to meet Steve just before the release of Windows 8.  I was on the OneNote team at the time building the first version of OneNote on the new Windows 8 platform.  Steve wanted to check out the app so his admin called my team and I ended up in Steve’s office along with another member of the OneNote team.

We installed the application on his machine.  It was a gigantic touch screen.  I also gave  him my Surface so he could use the application at normal size.  As he toured the application, he was looking for how easy it was to figure things out because he wanted it to be easy and simple for our customers.  At the time of this encounter, I was engaged and had a OneNote notebook that I was using for my wedding planning.  He noticed the content and said, “Are you getting married?  Congratulations!”

Then he began to ask hard questions about features we hadn’t built yet in this version of OneNote.  I don’t need to explain software development schedules to him.  And frankly he didn’t care.  But he DID care about how our customers would feel about what features we included and which ones we didn’t.  He cared A LOT!!

When all was said and done, I’d been there for over an hour answering some very hard questions.  I left feeling inspired and motivated.  His passion for the customer was infectious.  And I did my best to infuse the motivation he’d given me back into my team as we finished our work to ship OneNote on Windows 8.

When it comes to Steve Ballmer’s passion, this is the kind of leader I want to follow and the kind of leader I want to be.  We all need to surround ourselves with people who are passionate about what they do.  The people I work with on the Outlook team have passion like this and it makes me love going to work.  The teachers at my son’s school are passionate about helping him succeed and it makes our partnership even stronger and makes us all want to do our part.

So a big thanks to Steve for his leadership at Microsoft all of these years. You will be missed.

Cause and Effect



One concept that I REALLY want my kids to understand is — Consequences.  They are young, my daughter just turned 9 and my son is about to turn 13, so now it the time.  I really don’t want them learning this concept for the first time as they drive the family car on their own.

So where do I start?

Working full time, the time with my kids is precious.  When teaching moments come along, I need to grab them.  One morning this week, I had an opportunity.

My daughter was running really late that morning.  We needed to be out the door by 7:40am in order to get through a construction zone on our route, drop her off at her Summer Art Camp and drop off my son at his Summer Outdoor Camp (shameless plug: ).  For him, we meet a van and they head off on various adventures at different locations each day.  If you miss the van, you’ve got trouble.

We were in such a hurry to get out the door, that it wasn’t until we were well on our way that I went through my mental checklist for the morning.  My kids have learned to take on the majority of the responsibility for getting themselves ready each morning, including waking to their own alarm, getting dressed, making their bed, making and packing a sack lunch, getting their own breakfast and remembering to comb their hair and brush their teeth.  But they still need a little oversight. 🙂

Backpacks, sunscreen, oh no, I turned to my daughter, “Did you remember to make a lunch for today?”

“Uh oh.”

I didn’t respond like a perfect mother, “What!?  What are you doing to do for lunch!”


OK, I need to recover from this.  I need to be grateful for the fact that usually she gets it all done AND is ready to head out on time. I also want her heading off for the day on a positive note while also learning from this mistake.

This is my opportunity.  If I just solve this problem, nothing is learned.  But if I involve my daughter in the process of solving the problem. this turns into a teaching moment.

I looked back at my daughter through the rear view mirror, “We will figure something out.  You know, you’ve got some new things going on in your morning routine.”

She just got her ears pierced the weekend prior and is learning how to clean them herself which is taking some time.

“Did you know that when anybody has a change in their routine, it can mess them up?”

Her eyes got big and the tears stopped, “Really?”

“Yes.  since you need to clean your ears each morning, you should just plan to get up a little earlier tomorrow and then you won’t be late and you won’t forget to make your lunch.”

She already seemed to feel better.  I want her to realize she made a mistake but I also want her to know that I can understand WHY mistakes happen and we can come up with ideas to keep mistakes from happening again.  Today, it’s forgetting to pack a lunch – very trivial.  But when she’s a teenager, these things will probably be a bigger deal so I want to get this kind of dialog started now.

Next opportunity – problem solving.  Instead of just solving the problem, I just thought out loud to involve my daughter in the problem solving process.

“If we stop at the store first but hit bad traffic with all that construction, your brother might be late.  And then we’ll have to drive to wherever his camp activity is today.  We don’t want to solve one problem and create another.  Let’s get through the construction and see how much time we have.  If we are running late, we’ll drop off your brother first, and then go to the store and then get you to camp.  That will make me late for work, but I can work later tonight since your dad is picking you up.”

Elsie agreed that was a good idea.  She also understood that she was going to be making me late for work and that this wasn’t a good thing.  She started brainstorming other ideas on where we could go to find lunch stuff as well.

As it turned out, we breezed through the construction, found a convenience store to grab some lunch items, dropped her off first as usual and still got both me and her brother off on time.  And she still wanted to give me a hug goodbye as I dropped her off for the day.

My daughter learns from these moments and I know she’ll get up a bit earlier tomorrow.  She’s learning cause and effect, consequences, problem solving and that her mistakes can negatively impact others — all great life lessons that we need to find opportunities to teach.

As a side note, because of my son’s Autism, I can’t have conversations like this, but I KNOW he’s taking it all in.  By having these moments with my daughter, my son is learning from them, too.

Time Management for Third Graders

Teaching our kids about time management is a life skill that will enable and empower them no matter what they do.  As you look at the upcoming school year, finding opportunities to focus on this can make a big difference over the course of the school year.

Last year, I got lucky in this department when the first “monthly book report assignment” came home.  Book reports can be a hassle.  It’s a long term project as far as our little third graders are concerned.  And for a working parent, it can be a big stressor throughout the entire month as we try to help our kids not only remember, but to get the work done.

With my daughter, I decided to turn this into a chance to teach her about time (and project) management.  And with a 9 month school year, that would be a lot of opportunities in a row to figure this out.  The incentive:  if, by the end of the year, she was doing the entire book report on her own, in addition to her other household chores, she could get her ears pierced for her 9th birthday.

Here’s the summary of how we went from me helping with the whole thing to getting her independent by the end of the school year.

September:  I helped her pick the book and needed to remind her each day to get the reading done and then get the writing and art assignment done.  That was a lot of work!  And our afternoon babysitter was the main person working with her in the afternoon.

October:  Based on how things went in September, we knew about how many pages she could read in 15 minutes.  We chose a book that we estimated she could finish in 2 weeks.  We set a date for finishing the book and from there, we worked together to get all of the written and art assignments done.

November:  This month, we made a list of all the days she could work on her assignment and worked backwards from the due date to figure out all of the work she would do each day.  If she got behind on her schedule she’d need to make up those days on a Friday.  (We set up the schedule so she could avoid doing any homework on Fridays.)

December:  She got the month off. 🙂

January:  We put a whiteboard calendar up in her room. From October and November, we figured out that there were certain days where it was hard to make progress.  Her brother had a social skills group on Wednesdays to attend and she had reading tutoring (for her dyslexia which slows down her ability to read fluently) on Thursdays.  We added those appointments to the calendar and we did the “work back plan” together.  She read every day but worked on the written and art assignments on Mondays and Tuesdays with an occasional Friday.

February:  She tried to create her schedule all by herself.  This was difficult but she learned from the process.  After she did the first draft, we worked together to make sure it was set for the month.  By now, she was getting the daily tasks done on her own because she knew how to follow the schedule.  Only a few reminders were needed from me and the afternoon babysitter.

March:  Another month like February.  We’re on a roll.

April:  Wild card– Spring Break with a catch.  Her dad took her out of school for a few extra days around Spring Break.  She needed to work over one weekend and every Friday to meet the due date.  She was NOT happy but it drove a great conversation about balancing fun and work.  She got a few extra days of vacation and had a great time with her dad.  To balance out that fun, she needed to do a little extra work over one weekend.  This is how life can be juggling a full time job – and it’s a great lesson to learn early on.

May:  She was totally on her own with just a final review of the schedule.  I asked the babysitter to NOT remind her at all and I was going to casually ask her about progress over dinner.  I was a bit stressed this month.  I wasn’t sure if she would get it turned in on time.  But it’s the 3rd grade.  If she was going to miss a deadline, I’d rather her experience that earlier than later.  She came through.

Turning monthly book reports into an opportunity for her to really take ownership of her homework really made a difference in my daughter’s school year.  As she became more responsible for the work, her confidence grew.  She got good grades on her assignments.  And when she got a 3 out of 4 instead of a 4 out of 4 on any particular aspect, we’d talk about why we thought she got that score and what she could do next time to try and earn a 4.  It was a forward looking exercise, not spending too much time lamenting something we couldn’t change from the last one.

As I look ahead to the next school year, I’m excited to see what the NEXT opportunity will be to help her become more independent in her school work, and see her confidence build even more.  And yes, last weekend was her birthday.  She got her ears pierced and is already taking charge of the responsibility of cleaning them and following the directions she was given to take care of them.  So proud!

Are You Ready For Some Football?!


Adding a calendar from your favorite sports team is really easy to do. You just need to get an “ics file” with their schedule.  Some teams make it easy.  For example, on the Seattle Seahawks website, you just click “Download Now” from their schedule page while Outlook 2013 is open.  The calendar magically appears in Outlook.  You can rename it to whatever you want and instantly, you have the whole season in your calendar.

Other sites don’t make it so easy.  But in those cases, copy the URL for the ics file and then open Outlook.  Click “Open Calendar” from the Home tab and select “From Internet”.  Paste your URL into the box and you’re all set.

How does a busy family fit football into their already crazy schedule?  I suggest planning ahead for the whole season.  I’m lucky enough to have season tickets.  I figure out which home games I want to go to so I can figure out when I need to make other plans for the kids.  For the games I’ll miss, my husband figures out which friend he’ll be inviting OR we sell that pair of tickets (to help pay for our season).  By doing as much of this at the start of the season as possible, you can actually ENJOY the season.  If you don’t, this fun leisure activity could become pretty stressful as you’re constantly needing to remember which games you’re attending and whether or not you have made arrangements for the kids or not.

I realize this is more realistic for people with older kids.  But we have a network of friends who attend EVERY home game because they have a great arrangement with the grandparents, aunts and uncles, even when their children were very young.  It’s important that couples make time for themselves and this is a great excuse.  And the grandparents are NOT complaining about getting extra time with the grandkids.

Meet The Neighbors

National Night Out got me thinking about how important it is that parents of Autistic children get out and meet their neighbors.  But it also reminded me of how difficult this can be.

We are so busy with therapy appointments, IEP meetings, all kinds of things.  We aren’t exactly on the “play date circuit” either as our children struggle to engage with other children in the neighborhood.  It would be easy to just hide out in our homes and keep to ourselves.

So why do we need to get out there?  We NEED our neighbors.

When our neighbors understand our situation, they can help us.  They can understand why we decline play dates.  They can teach their own children to understand why the little boy next door doesn’t say anything when their own kids try to be friendly.  We can teach them about our situation and in doing so, we teach them how to interact with us.

When my son was about 8, he fell off his scooter, slammed his face into the pavement and broke off his 2 front teeth.  I saw the whole thing happen.  It was like a nightmare rolling in slow motion.  In the moment, I HAD to focus on him.  This bad situation could quickly spiral out of control if I didn’t get him understanding what happened and that it would be ok quickly enough.  The problem:  my FOUR-year old daughter was also outside playing.

My next door neighbor was in her kitchen making dinner and saw the incident from her kitchen window.  She grabbed her husband and they came to the rescue.  They knew my circumstance and because of that, they knew I needed help.  I focused on my son.  My neighbor collected my daughter and brought her into the house behind me.  And her husband found my son’s teeth and put them in a little baggy for me.

I don’t know what I would have done without them because I don’t know how I would have divided my attention across my son AND my daughter.  If they didn’t know my situation, they may have NOT come out, worried they may offend me by thinking I needed help.  And as I repeatedly thanked them, I reinforced my need for them and my gratitude for them.

This is an extreme example but there were many occasions where my neighbors found my son wandering.  He had escaped in the brief moments when I had looked away to attend to my daughter when she was first born.  They knew my situation and because of that, they had my back.

So I hope we all take the time to get out and meet our neighbors and not by shy about telling them our situation and even being bold enough to say, “if you see my son wandering the streets, PLEASE, bring him back.  This is a problem I’m dealing with right now.”

YouTube Reminders

As parents, it’s our job to creatively solve problems.  My problem: I’m not convinced my 13 year old son with Autism is washing his face well enough.  And puberty is becoming less forgiving by the day.  I’m not sure if this is a problem that all mom’s face.  But it’s one I’m facing now.

We’ve taught our son how to wash his face, shown him YouTube videos, everything, but if I forget to remind him, I’m not convinced he’s getting the job done.  When I have him wash his face in front of me BEFORE entering the shower, I can see a noticeable difference in his skin the next day.  This is a tough problem.  A 13 year old boy does NOT need his mother interfering with the shower routine.  He needs to learn it and independently do it.  When I remind him, I feel like a mother hen, nagging him.  And by his response to me, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t appreciate what I have to say about the matter.

So this week, I’m trying something new.  I call it a YouTube Reminder.  I’ve added a reminder to his electronic calendar which he can see on his iPhone:

Wash Your Face in the Shower (

It’s set to pop up on his phone about 15 minutes before he takes his shower.  Since routines run my son’s life, he predictably takes a shower at 7:45 each evening so I can use this to my advantage  My hope is that he’ll see this just before he enters the shower, and he’ll click on the YouTube link.  He’ll see the pretty girl, talking about how you need to wash your face to avoid pimples, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll not only remember, but he’ll do the thorough job that I know he’s capable of because Vanessa Hudgens told him to.

As is the case with all of the things like this that I’ve tried over the years, it may be a huge success – or a terrible failure.  But it’s worth a try.  It may even create a more positive dialog where we can laugh about the video and the topic won’t put him in such a defensive place as he’s trying so hard to become more independent.  (Something I celebrate despite the difficulties.)

2 weeks later…

I’m calling my experiment successful.  This turned out to be a more fun and positive way to remind him about washing his face.  It changed the conversation from one of a nagging mom to something funny we could laugh about.

Since my son isn’t verbal in the same way as a typical kid, here’s how I know he’s got the point.  He started talking about his age and how it relates to his sister’s age.  She had a birthday last weekend and here’s what he said (paraphrased):

“When she is 9, I will turn 13.  When she is 10, I will be 14.  When she is 11, I will be 15.  When she is 12, she will need to wash her face.  When I turn 16, I can drive a car.”

He’s got the point. 🙂


Managing the Family Calendar

With so many appointments, how do you keep everything straight – AND keep everyone informed?  The answer:  SHARE the calendar.

In our family, we’ve got a lot going on.  The list of people who need to know what’s happening each week is pretty long: my husband, the babysitter, the program manager for my son’s Autism therapy program, the ABA therapists who work in our home, my ex-husband, and the kids.  Knowing the schedule has been a key to my son’s success.  When he knows what’s coming, he is ready for all of the activities he faces in the week ahead – especially if there are changes to the routine.

To keep things simple, I have one calendar that is shared with the kids and the babysitter who all view it on their iPhones.  I email the weekly calendar out to the ABA team and my ex-husband.  My program manager uses this to decide when she wants to meet with therapists to gather data or just check in.  And then we don’t need to coordinate since I’m at work anyway.  This also gets questions answered before the work week starts – so I can actually focus at work rather than dealing with appointment details in the middle of my day.