Autism at school
Every family requires different kinds of support and advice. However, there are some areas which many families with an autistic member will need to learn about. Below you can find topics which are frequently encountered by families when it comes to autism in school.
We also have our online training courses suitable for parents and professionals. We are continuously building our range of courses to help families learn about different areas of life including school and education, home life, help with specific diagnoses and more. You can find more information on courses available and why our training is for you here.
Don't forget we also have a selection of free resources which be found here.
Choosing a school
Education can take many forms including school, home education, forest schools and tutoring. The pages on this website will concentrate on schools but please do contact us if you require thoughts or information on other areas of education. Things to remember when choosing a school There is no right or wrong way to go about choosing a school place for your child but here are some tips to help you get started. Remember that the majority of children with a diagnosis of Autism and/or ADHD will be educated in a mainstream school, so a diagnosis doesn’t automatically mean that your child will need to attend a specialist provision. This may sound obvious but look carefully at the school and bare it in mind for your child. Don’t take into account the views of other parents in the first instance because schools are such a personal choice. If you are looking at a specialist provision make sure that the school you choose caters for children with your child’s diagnosis. Even if your child is about the be diagnosed with a condition, you will probably not be offered a place at a school that has a diagnosis as an entry criteria until that diagnosis has been confirmed. Make sure that you choose a school that shares similar values to you and has an ethos you agree with. There is no point if you are against a specific intervention or therapy, sending your child to a school that practices that intervention because it will cause negative feelings Look at the practical elements of a school choice and consider the needs of the entire family. If your child is attending specialist provision for example you may be eligible for transport but consider how you would get them to school following an appointment or collect them if they were ill in the middle of the school day. Visit lots of schools so that you can make a balanced view. Don’t read too much into school inspection reports, these are a small snippet of how a school performs with very specific aims and goals. Try to always look at the school as a whole. For example, don’t choose a school on the fact that you like a specific member of staff because teachers don’t stay forever! If appropriate (usually with secondary schools), involve your child in the decision where possible so that they have a voice that is valued and feel a level of ownership on the school they go to. Don’t look too far in the future. A lot can happen to a child and a school in a short space of time so try not to think about a school being suitable or not for an 11 year old child that you haven’t met, when you are actually looking for a school for a 5 year old that you do know!
Communicating with teachers
All too often parents feel that schools are not doing the right thing for their child. It is important to remember that teachers are humans, not miracle workers and have very pressured workloads. Very often they are not even the final decision makers with what happens in the classroom. That said, a dedicated and understanding teacher will make an enormous difference to the entire experience of school not just for your child, but also to you as the parent/carer. Communication The key to a successful working relationship with teachers is always communication. Sadly, the curriculum for teacher training is very hit and miss when it comes to SEND and even the most prepared teacher may not have previously worked with a child at the particular stage in development your child is at. In primary schools when you know who your child’s main teacher(s) will be, send a welcome letter introducing yourself and your child and thanking them in advance for what they are going to do for your child during the following academic year. This doesn’t have to be a detailed letter at all but something that will help the teacher remember your child on the first day. You may feel that the teacher needs more detail. You can find our downloadable template for introducing your child to a new teacher, “All About Me (Primary)”, in the parents & carers section of our shop. Get in touch before the start of term Communicating with the teacher before term starts is particularly important if you have a child in a mainstream school with no EHC plan or internal school plan. These children may not reach the threshold for these levels of support but it doesn’t mean that they don’t need any additional support. For example, your child might be better seated in a certain point in the classroom or need a personal timetable. With notice these things can be implemented but there is nothing worse than on the second day of term being told that you need to move children as this is disruptive to the entire class and cuts into learning time. Give it time Remember, it takes every child time to settle back into the school routine after holidays, particularly the summer break. Teacher pupil relationships also take time to develop and thrive. There will always be teething problems on both sides. As long as there are no problems arising which are putting your child in danger (both physical and emotional) give a few weeks settling in period before being critical or congratulatory on the progress to date. Send an open letter In secondary school, follow the same pattern of advice for your child’s class teacher but it might also be worth sending an open letter to all staff that can be put in the staff room. Perhaps send it along with some biscuits for good measure! If there is a subject where you think your child might experience a specific challenge, then make sure you notify that teacher directly. Often non-curriculum subjects such as art, music and PE can pose additional challenges owing to the sensory experiences of these subjects.
Sensory processing at school
Schools are a sensory nightmare as anyone who has spent any time in one knows. Modern teaching techniques are without a doubt more interactive with a view to be more engaging and entertaining for students but this does mean that there is an even greater impact on sensory processing. Here is a brief rundown of the impact on autistic sensory systems throughout a school day. Taste School dinners are unpredictable as there is no guarantee that the planned menu option will be available or that even a person’s favourite food would be cooked in a way and to a recipe that the child expects. Touch School uniforms can be uncomfortable and even painful for some children to wear. School corridors can be crowded and often people bump into you and this can cause further turmoil. School playgrounds with children running around and brushing past each other. Smell The smell of lots of people in a small confined space, the smells of school dinners cooking, the smell of art or craft equipment Sound The noise of children in the playground, communal areas, classrooms, the noise of fluorescent lights. Computers and whiteboards, music lessons, Sight Bright lights, the glare off of screens Vestibular and proprioceptive Different floorings, seating and working out motor planning in crowded spaces. Interoceptive The anxiety of being in the school environment often means that the individual is unable to process their body’s signals and this could lead to a child having a toileting accident or being unable to know if they are feeling unwell or need a drink etc.
Knowing your child's sensory profile is essential in supporting them through daily living. If you want to learn about your child's sensory profile, click below.
For general information on what each sense is, and how it can affect an autistic person, please view our free handout on sensory processing here.
Stimming at school
Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour, is often misunderstood by education professionals. The current thought is that classrooms should be quiet with children sitting in their chair as still as possible. This is not helpful for those with autism and ADHD who will need freedom to move in order to regulate and focus on their learning. How do people stim? Individuals will tend to have a preferred stim, or stims, and it is worth informing the school that these are to ensure that your child is able to self regulate during class and stay focused on learning. Of course the stim should not distract other children as far as possible, but ensure that your child will be given adequate opportunity to stim and that they are never reprimanded for doing so. Stimming in the classroom Some stimming behaviours are easier than others to do in a classroom setting without disruption so it is important to let the school know what common patterns of stimming are for your child. For example if a child would receive regulation by flapping their hands under their desk then that is something that could be done in a classroom without causing distractions to other pupils or drawing attention to what the child is doing. However, if they need to verbalise or move around a lot during their stimming then they may need to leave the classroom. Stimming and anxiety Many children will stim more frequently or intensely if they are experiencing heightened anxiety. This may mean that the behaviours often occur during events such as school assemblies or in the dining hall. It is important that you make sure that this taken into account by the school so that all staff are aware of the needs of your child. Depending on the age of your child it might be worth asking their teacher to explain to the class about stimming. Children are very accepting if they understand something and by explaining these behaviours your child is less likely to experience bullying/teasing from their peers.
For more information on what stimming is, and why it's so important, see our free handout on stimming here.
We also have information sheets written especially for teachers, explaining stimming, sensory processing and ADHD. Check them out here.
The after-effects of school
Why does my child come home and have a meltdown? One of the most common questions on parenting an autistic child is, “why is my child fine at school but comes home and has a meltdown?”. This question always poses two areas of doubt: 1. Is the teacher telling the truth that the child is fine in school? 2. What are you doing wrong that means your child has this reaction to coming home? In fact there is a completely different reason for your child behaving in this way. They will have spent the day masking which is exhausting and puts enormous strain on the individual. The relief of returning home to a place where they feel comfortable, safe and able to regulate is huge and often results in a huge outpouring of stress and emotion. Why do they have a meltdown at home? In many ways you should be looking at your child’s reaction as an enormous compliment to how safe they feel when with you. We also understand however that this can be very difficult for you to deal with and it can get to the point that parents almost dread their child returning home from school. Every child will react differently to the end of the school day, so here are some tips that may help your child to regulate and process their school day in a more positive fashion. How to help your child after school Allow your child to return into the family home without any questions about how their day was. They probably won’t be in a position to answer that question at that point as they won’t have been able to process adequately yet. Ensure there is a snack and drink available for your child that they can access without having to ask. Many individuals with autism struggle to eat properly when they are stressed and they may not have eaten or drunk an adequate amount during the day. Dehyrdation and low sugar levels can add to a sensory imbalance. If you have more than one child, ensure that your neuro diverse child is able to have time alone and away from their siblings if they wish. Don’t book extra curricular activities too soon after the school day finishing. If your child is having a difficult time don’t worry about homework until your child is adequately regulated. Don’t assume that because your child is having a difficult post school time, that they have had a bad day at school, positive experiences can be as difficult to process as negative ones.
For more information and ideas on understanding and supporting an autistic family member, check out our books here.