How can I help autistic pupils develop more independence in learning tasks?

an adult working with children in a classroom

By Sarah

One of the most common issues we come across when going into schools is children struggling to work without constant prompting.  This can be for a variety of reasons including (but not exclusively) fear of failure, difficulty getting started (the dreaded blank page problem!), distractions in the environment around them, trouble understanding the work or lack of motivation/sense of purpose. Another key factor is that a lot of the children we work with have had a 121 TA with them for years. Often, they haven’t had to ever sit and work by themselves and as a result, they can become dependent on the constant prompts that they are used to.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that some children really do need specific support.  There are many TAs (and teachers) out there are doing their best to help autistic children succeed. You’re all great and you hold schools together – we know this. But what is increasingly common – with expectations for both children and teaching staff becoming increasingly pressurised – is that we as the adults also have a fear of failure when trying to support children’s learning. If they don’t do enough work, our work ethic is scrutinised. If they don’t answer all the questions, our ability is questioned. If they lack motivation, our motivations must be lacking.

So, when you read these suggested strategies please know that they are written from a place of understanding and empathy. They are options, advised tactics, and potential ideas in your toolbox which may work some days but not on other days. They may work wonderfully for Child A but get Child B absolutely nowhere. We know that autism is never one-size-fits-all but hopefully some of these strategies will at least start a conversation about how we can begin to develop some of this much-needed independence in our children (whether autistic or not!)

It is also worth reading the research from the Education Endowment Foundation on the best use of TAs which we discuss in our TA mentoring course.  We think about how we might enable children to think for themselves when faced with a problem and how we might sit back and give them that thinking time, whatever the pressures around us to get on with it are.

diagram of 5 different ways to intervene to help more independence when TA s work with children

From p15

It’s also worth noting that you may be a parent reading this who is home-schooling through choice or necessity. As we go through, I’ll try to suggest ways that this can be adapted for a home environment too, as many of these strategies will be helpful as children try and complete homework or house chores too.

 How can we support autistic children to work independently?

  1. Environment

One of the main struggles for children trying to work in a classroom (or hectic home environment) is the constant distractions around them. They have all the best intentions to sit and focus on their work but somebody is talking nearby, a bird just flew past the window, their seat is uncomfortable and someone just started using the hand dryer after flushing the toilet. Start by checking what your child needs.

  • Ear defenders or putting music on (either out loud or with headphones on) may drown out some other auditory distractions and help them focus.
  • A stability cushion or weighted blanket over their legs may help children feel grounded and calm, enhancing their ability to focus.
  • Sitting alone or further apart from others may be useful, especially if they have a chatty or fidgety table partner/sibling!


In order to cut out some of these distractions (especially the visual ones) you could put up a cardboard box around the edge of their table to create a workstation. This creates a wall without making them sit facing a wall and the great thing is that it’s portable. Need it for Maths? Pop it up. Don’t need it during group work in English? Take it down. If you want it to be a more permanent fixture then of course you can leave it up on their own table but it’s nice to have the option. This is useful for parents who want to make it clear to their children when it’s homework time and when it’s playtime. If the workstation is up, it’s time to work. Take it down and the message is clear – work time is finished.

Within the workstation, you may want to personalise it with the child’s name or a couple of pictures but don’t let the workstation get too cluttered. Only get out the resources they need for that lesson – you don’t need every workbook and word mat on display all the time. Cut out the clutter and keep it simple, otherwise it may become a distraction in and of itself!

A cardboard screen with trays to put work to do and finished work in

With all our strategies we recommend that you do them with the child. Please don’t suddenly set it up one Monday morning as a “surprise” – this often doesn’t go down as well as we’d hope! Autistic children often find change difficult, struggle to cope with the unpredictable and many of them have deep seated anxiety and self esteem issues. If you suddenly give them their own table with a workstation all set up without any prior warning they may just end up confused, worried and might even feel like it’s a punishment because they haven’t been working hard enough. Take the time to talk about it with them first, explain that we’re going to give it a go to see if it helps them focus and show them pictures of adult workstations so they recognise that it’s a lifelong strategy that they can use (not anything baby-ish or patronising) like this:

various examples of wall mounted storage and organisation ideas.

photos from Pinterest


Let’s leave workstations for now but I’ll come back to them later…

For more info on sensory support check out this blog:

2. Chunking

I don’t know about you but I have a list for just about everything: chores, holiday packing, meal ideas – you name it, I have a list for it. Why do we do it? Often, it’s because our brain appreciates us breaking things down into smaller chunks. It helps us to process what needs doing, things seem more manageable and we get a sense of achievement every time we cross something off. Our aim with the next strategy is to do the same thing with school work. Especially as children get older, they are given whole worksheets full of information or questions and it can be difficult for autistic children to know which bit to focus on first or how to process it all effectively. By breaking it down, we’re making this tricky task a little bit more manageable. It also helps to keep it visual – how many times do you have to give an instruction to tidy their room? Writing it down gives autistic children something to refer back to, thus building independence (and saving your sanity) as you point them back to the visual instead of repeating the instruction.

Work schedules

These are so easy to adapt and personalise for your child, depending on what their interests are, how old they are and how easy/difficult they currently find independent working. The aim is simple – complete short, manageable tasks to work towards a quick, motivational reward. The aim is to keep it visual and work with whatever attention span the child has in order to tick things off. Rather than trying to push them through a big long list of tasks, the work schedule breaks it down into short bursts of productivity with regular breaks in between, supporting them with that visual reminder. 

chart outlining 4 steps to a task with car pictures

 I used this example with a Reception child who couldn’t process more than one instruction at a time. We started with “one instruction = reward” and over time we built it up to following “two instructions = reward” and so on. Does it require patience? Yes. Is it slightly more time consuming to write down/draw the instruction? Yes. But does the child build independence? Yes.

work schedule chart with football pictures. Titles, first, nest, last and sensory activityThis second example is for a child in year 2 who initially loved monster trucks and football! After two weeks of using this, he decided that actually he loved Minecraft more than anything else in the world. No problem – we simply stuck pictures of Minecraft over the other photos and the work schedule was back in business. For this child, he was able to manage 2 or 3 tasks before getting a quick reward. He still needed lots of modelling and scaffolding to begin with but over time, as he became moreImage comfortable and familiar with it, his independence grew.

Note: the reward doesn’t have to be time-consuming or lots of extra work for you. I worked with a year 1 child who loved those little pop up toys so for her, this was a super motivational reward. (We wrote all our numbers to 15 and read a whole reading book in 20mins just by using a 1-step work schedule with the pop up toy as a reward each time).

This third example was used with a child in year 6 who loved the NYPD. When I went back for my first visit after giving them the work schedule his unfiltered autistic honesty shone through as he told me straight up “oh, we never use that!” Goooood. It turns out he was being asked to get through all of morning challenge, all of English, and all of Maths before he got a reward. This is just too much! We want to use this resource to break everything down into little chunks so that the reward is always within reach. Waiting almost 3 hours for a reward may be attainable for children who are already pretty independent or have used a work schedule for a while but as a first step it was too big a jump. For this child, it was also helpful to give him some rules for the reward so that it wasn’t distracting and difficult for others around him. He chose to play a game on the iPad as his reward so we agreed the rules with him and stuck them on his table. Again, visual support and an active discussion helped this strategy to succeed. We don’t want children to feel confused or out of control; these strategies are supposed to help them!

  1. Organisation

One thing that can hinder independence is not having the right thing at the right time. Your child may be very capable of writing 3 sentences in one go…if only they could find their pencil. Or maybe your child could sit and focus for the whole lesson on their maths problems…if only they knew where their worksheet was. One of the benefits of using these strategies is that we’re not only getting work done (hopefully!), we’re also teaching them life skills. If they are able to organise themselves and independently find the relevant equipment/worksheet then they’re well on the way to being successful in life, as well as their potential academically.

Workstation + work schedule

For the ultimate combo, use the two strategies together. You could laminate the work schedule and stick it up on one of the workstation walls. Alternatively, cut the work schedule into strips and put each strip in an envelope for children to open. You could use a magazine folder or tray to put the “to-do” work in so it’s clear what still needs to be done. Make sure you have a finished tray or folder. This helps children to stay organised, gives a focus/purpose to the task and also helps them feel a sense of accomplishment as that tray fills up throughout the lesson or day.

child reading a book with a timer showing 10 minutes.

For some children, it may be helpful to use these strategies alongside a timer. Instead of saying “task one: complete maths question one” it might be more helpful to say “task one: work on maths for 2mins”. This gives children something to aim for, especially if you know that they’re going to really struggle to complete maths question one without any support from you. After their 2mins of trying independently, then you can go and help them – but we’re still building resilience through encouraging them to have a go on their own first. Timers can also be helpful to ensure that rewards don’t go on forever! Again, explain to the child that the aim here is to get work down so we can proud of ourselves/learn more etc etc. Be honest with them – “I know you could just turn the timer over again and tell me you didn’t but I’m going to leave it with you and trust that you’ll make the right decision”. It can be a little scary to put the power in their hands but let’s give them the chance to surprise us and make a BIG deal if/when they make the right choice. Note: Give them more than one chance to make the right decision here. Don’t be afraid to call them out if you spot them giving themselves extra reward time, but talk to them about how these strategies are to help teach them life skills and let them know that you’ll give them another chance. How often do we get second chances in life when we mess up? Let’s talk to our kids about that too so they know that we’re on their side, cheering them on and willing them to succeed!

4. Quick ideas

Just before I finish, here are 8 ideas for quick, motivational rewards. It doesn’t need to be rocket science – just find something that your child really gets on board with. Ask them, give them options, and encourage them to take ownership of it. Note: If your child doesn’t use speech you can still ask them what they would like.   Use visuals to support communication and still seek to include them in these decisions.

  1. Pop up toy (as mentioned before – a winner with several of the children I work with)
  2. Sensory items (helpful for those kids who have sensory needs anyway – this helps keep their body alert in between work periods. Note: Be careful that you don’t withhold these from children that need them to stay regulated during the day! They are more necessary for some children than others.)
  3. iPad (simple yet effective. Decide rules together about what games they can play, whether they need to use headphones, where they need to use it etc)
  4. Book (some kids will love retreating to the book corner for 5 mins – rewards can be educational too!)
  5. Music (this can be a really lovely way for kids to de-stress if they can listen to a soothing piece of music or their favourite song in between tasks)
  6. Drink of water (yes – it can be this simple! This may be good for those kids who want/need to stretch their legs or have a wriggle – let them walk to the water fountain in between tasks.)
  7. Lego (if children are only allowed to build for 1 or 2 mins in between tasks why not challenge them to see how much they can build by the end of the day? This can be a very satisfying and motivational way to get work done.)
  8. Drawing/colouring (lots of children find the mindfulness colouring sheets very therapeutic and relaxing which can be especially useful if they’re finding the work stressful and difficult)

It will probably take time for both you and your autistic child to get used to these strategies. Give it a couple of weeks minimum before giving up, and keep explaining to the child what you’re hoping to get out of it. If they’re not on board then it’s not to going to work – but it might take some time to process how it works.  Building independence is best done through cooperation with the child so they can enjoy their progress. Knowing when to ask for help and knowing that they can help others is part of that too. So keep going! You’ve got this.

You can find out many more ways of supporting autistic children in primary schools with our CPD accredited courses at Schudio TV.  This is a great one to start with    (only £20 individually or get all our courses for only £10 a month as a Getting It Right member)

How did an Autism Specialist get diagnosed as ADHD?

a pink background with repeating pattern of the word ADHD and fish blowing bubbles.

This is what my brain feels like – lots of bubbles (thoughts, ideas and distractions) going up through my head!

Just to jump right in…The autism specialist is me, Lynn McCann, and I was diagnosed with ADHD in July.

As with most events like this there is a back story.  I have been an autism specialist for 16 years now and in that time have studied and researched autism, ADHD, PDA Profile and other conditions.  I have listened intently to the experiences of the autistic young people we work with and of autistic adults who work with us and who are my friends.

I started studying ADHD a few years ago when more and more of our pupils were receiving diagnosis of autism and ADHD together.  As usual, we wanted to know as much as possible so we could support our pupils and educate teachers to understand their pupils. At the same time, we as a team were also studying autism and girls and developing our understanding of the reasons why autistic girls were being misunderstood, misdiagnosed and in some cases, missed all together.  I started to come across articles and testimonies from ADHD girls and women, realising that they too had been missed or misdiagnosed.

It started years ago

In 2017 I went to the ADHD Foundation ADHD conference in Liverpool.  It was there that a few light bulb moments happened, and I realised that:

  1. The ADHD community were promoting the links between ADHD and autism and embracing dual diagnosis so that they could help and support those children who had both diagnosis.
  2. More and more adults were being diagnosed, contrary to the past belief that children grew out of ADHD, we were beginning to understand that they didn’t. It was just that adults seemed to learn to adapt and manage ADHD differently.  Or sometimes they were blamed for their difficulties, developed mental ill health or some dropped out of society or ended up in the criminal justice system…undiagnosed.
  3. More and more women were being diagnosed as adults.

I loved listening to Rory Bremner’s story of being diagnosed and how ADHD affected his life. As well as being funny, I loved how ADHD contributed to him to be so creative and intelligent.  Whilst there I took the opportunity to do a Qb test.  This is a computer programme that tests your reactions, focus and attention.  I scored in the top 4% of people likely to have ADHD.

A horse that looks like it is laughing


And at that ADHD conference I was told off by another professional for fidgeting during the afternoon talk! 


I was becoming more and more convinced that I had ADHD and spent some time investigating my own history, doing online questionnaires for both autism and ADHD and putting together my evidence.  I knew there had always been aspects of autism that I totally understood because it was my experience also.  I have strong hyper-sensitivities which impact on where I go and choices I make and can be very distressing if I can’t escape them.  I thrive on routine and have a lot of anxiety around unpredictability.  As a child I could be withdrawn and seem very shy.  The truth being (and can still be) that I often don’t know what to do or say around others.  These days I can come across as confident because I have worked hard to practice and learn what to do and I genuinely love people, so make all the effort I can to listen and to engage with them.  I have taught myself to do this for many, many years and hope that people who meet me now can see my genuine interest in them.  (And forgive my interrupting, distractions and over-excitement.)  I love doing training and presenting because I have a script and intense interest in my subject, and I love explaining things.  I can move around and if you have ever seen me do a presentation in real life you will see that I don’t stay still at all.

I understand autism so well because I have family members and close friends who I have helped self-identify or become officially diagnosed, as well as working with so many autistic children all these years.  However, I also love novelty and have the boredom threshold of a gnat. (my own phrase there!)  I am impulsive and can be distracted at the tiniest thing.  It was clues like that, that led me to looking more at ADHD.

There’s obviously a lot more to it… but let’s get back to the story…

Three years ago, I had written a four page essay on why I might have ADHD and took it to my doctors.  She agreed to refer me to the assessment team.  I knew it would be a couple of years so tried to settle down to wait.  After a year I hadn’t heard anything, so I rang my surgery.  They were very sorry, they said, they and forgotten to send the referral and did I still want to be referred? (GRRRRR!) So, they did, and a couple of weeks later I was called to an appointment with the mental health team to triage me.  Once I told them I wasn’t there for a mental health assessment but a referral for an ADHD assessment, they finally got the right forms out and after our interview, said they would put the referral forward.  I know ADHD isn’t a mental health condition, but it can affect (and in my past it has done) mental health.  At this time, I was fine and just wanted to get on with the ADHD assessment. (Did I say I was rubbish at waiting for things!)

So, two years and one month later I was contacted by the Lancashire ADHD Assessment Team in Haydock (which isn’t actually in Lancashire but Merseyside) to invite me for a video conference assessment.  I filled in more forms and had a good chat to my family about my history, things they noticed and examples from my childhood.  I have two good friends who recently had an adult ADHD assessment, and they were both so helpful and encouraging.  By this time, I was a nervous wreck. I was fairly convinced that I fit the diagnostic criteria but terrified I might have got it wrong, or the assessor wouldn’t agree with me.  I checked out the service and knew that they had up to date knowledge, were diagnosing adults and knew about adult women and ADHD.

After an hour and a half asking me questions about my whole life, going through each aspect of the diagnostic criteria, the assessor said “YES”.  He was confident that he could diagnose me with ADHD.  That is the point my brain went to mush and I couldn’t focus on anything else for the rest of the day.

What's next? written on a post it note.

What happens next?

According to the NICE guidelines, ADHD can be treated with medication and therapy alongside it.  I am not keen on medication at this point,  but am signing up for the therapy sessions they are offering and seeing what that might do to help.  I am 53 years old (yes, I know you can’t believe it!) and at this time in my life I have a million strategies on the go, and many of them do work.  I look like the most uber-organised person on the outside but on closer examination it is all quite tenuously held together.  However, I run my own business and have people around me who catch what I drop and who look after me.  I have the best team in the world.  We are mostly neurodiverse people and fully empathetic to working with differences in people within our team as well as in those we work with.

It is a huge thing to declare my ADHD diagnosis publicly.  But in my position I have the opportunity to do some good with it.  I can help dispel the misunderstandings about ADHD and encourage those who might be thinking they are ADHD to go for assessment.  I have been a teacher for 30 years and I can reflect on how ADHD has affected my teaching and how some reasonable adjustments could have made a huge difference.  I am an employer and business leader that can help other employers recognise their own neurodiversity as well as understand and help their employees.  I can share my experiences and struggles, my strategies and challenges to help others.  I have already written and deliver a course about how autism and ADHD can interact.  In the future I will be writing more about adult ADHD and also how to support ADHD girls in school.  I will continue with my autism work and developing our team’s expertise so we can be there for our pupils, their families and their teaching staff.  We are still autism specialist first.

And I can be a bit kinder to myself.  Sometimes I will struggle and there is a reason I can understand.  And that is okay.

Finally, I want to thank my family and all those amazing people in the autism and ADHD community who have helped and supported me in this journey.  You know who you are.  Thank you with all my heart.

Here’s some great websites and organisations I have found useful.  I’m sure to be adding to these over time. – Great online information and conferences – I love Jessica’s you tube channel too. – this is what helped me start to collate my evidence.  Great magazine on so many issues. – this article was illuminating for me.

Employing autistic people – an employers story

a picture of Cristina sitting at a desk. A white woman with long blond hair and wearing glasses.


I set up my company, Reachout ASC in January 2014.  At first I worked on my own, but soon added another specialist teacher, and most crucially, I paid someone to do my bookkeeping (not my biggest strength).   Now I have two part time employees, three self-employed associate specialist teachers and I’m holding on to that bookkeeper for dear life!  We call ourselves a team… because being in this together is what makes the services and products of Reachout ASC as good as they are.  It is a team effort.  Two of our team are autistic.  One of them is Cristina, who has given permission for me to share some of her story.  I employed her as an office assistant four years ago.  Cristina plays a vital role in preparing training materials, resource packs and general office duties.

I knew Cristina was autistic before I employed her.   That piece of information was very helpful as it enabled me to interview her in a way that was comfortable for her.  I knew from her CV that she had the skills I needed, but to get to know her properly, a formal interview would have not worked.  So we met at a café of her choosing and had a chat.  We talked about a lot of things, but I was able to ask particular questions that enabled me to make the decision to hire her.

The Law

The laws of employment are heavily weighted towards the employee and so it is not surprising that small business owners like me are wary of who they employ.  It’s a huge responsibility when facing the decision of who will fit into your very small team and do the work you need them to do, efficiently and cheerfully (if we are in a small team, getting on together is of vital importance).  It’s not unusual to be cautious and afraid of hiring someone who says they have a disability or condition you don’t understand.  Running a small business, the onus of everything falls on you, and if it goes wrong, you stand to lose everything.

But the Equality Act of 2010 also gives us guidance to draw and be empowered from.  Small businesses are ideal places for hiring people with disabilities because often you can make the reasonable adjustments that it is much harder to do in a huge corporation.  I did some work with a big government organisation in my area.  They wanted autism awareness training as they had autistic employees who were struggling.  However, despite a couple of years work, nothing really changed.  Their recruitment processes were not changed, their offices remained open plan and even pre-COVID they said they couldn’t be letting people work from home to get a break from the environmental sensory overload  of a hot-desking office system.  Every office in the country had been designed centrally and it could take years (or perversely a pandemic!!!) to change it.   I was disappointed and at least one of the autistic employees had to leave through lack of support.

What we do

But as a small business owner I can do whatever I can to make the environment work for my employees.  In our office, we did a sensory audit.  And the feedback from Cristina and our other team members with differing needs led to us painting the walls blue to reduce glare, to switching off the automatic hand dryers and providing paper towels in the toilets. I decided to give all staff flexible hours as long as work was done and they let me know what they were doing and when,  and setting up communication systems that were logical and accessible.  We made all our policies easy read  which was appreciated by the whole team and made sure that any meetings had a clear agenda and each person had time to prepare what they wanted to contribute.

It’s a false economy to say you don’t have time to do these things because they actually benefit the whole team.  We use a Kamban system to plan and prioritise our tasks and so each person knows what to do, when to do it and communicates when it is done.  This was to help Cristina do her work, but was quickly adopted by others and it has led to much more efficiency in our team.

Cristina has also applied for and got Access to Work payments.  This little known benefit can help many employees with the adaptations they might need to access work.  Cristina uses it to get a taxi to work as public transport is far to much sensory overload for her.  I definitely noticed the difference in her ability to start her work each day, once that trigger was taken out of the equation.

Of course, you might say, it is easy for you!  As autism specialists it’s only right we know how to support autistic employees.  But I also have people on my team with ADHD, epilepsy, OCD and dyscalculia, who are menopausal and diabetic.  Any workforce is a mixture of people with different needs.  I have just found that understanding and adapting our working practices have led to loyalty, efficiency and high standards because we practice what we preach!

cartoon of 4 people around a table having a team meeting.

What can I do?

10 tips for small business leaders.




  1. Have a read of the Equality Act and see it as opportunity not a mountain to climb. Talk to your staff about it and invite them to talk to you about any barriers they might have in doing their job efficiently.  Remember the words are ‘reasonable adjustments’ and that means it has to work for you as a company as well as for the individual team member.  There may be some small costs involved, but often a better organised system such as rules around interrupting people when they are working and an option to work from home could be more effective. 
  2. Think about your recruitment processes and how accessible they are or are not? Are your descriptions clear or ambiguous?  Could you give interview questions out before the interview?  Does it have to be formal?  Can you think about how you can test skills over judging someone on their ability to give eye contact or not? 
  3. Know that some of your staff may be afraid of disclosing their needs and that they don’t legally have to. All you can do is make your workplace open to difference and respectful of all differences.  People may have had terrible bullying and persecution before they came to work for you and so it needs to be handled sensitively.  If someone discloses to you, it is confidential and if you use it against them in any way they can take you to a tribunal. So be honest, fair and document your discussions and support if need be.  I ask my team to comment on their support each time we have a work review, usually twice a year and we document that.
  4. Remember this is a learning experience for everyone and the employee themselves may not know what reasonable adjustments will work for them. Just be open to learning together.
  5. Get your employment contracts right. I paid a HR company to draw these up for me asking them specifically to use clear and appropriate language that all my team could understand.  This can be used as a template for all employees.
  6. Make job descriptions specific and review them regularly. We have some specific tasks for Cristina to do each week, but there are some others that may come up occasionally.   The job description is a clear as possible with allowance for these additional tasks that develop with our work. The Kamban system can then be used as the main weekly task board.
  7. Make hierarchies clear. I recently employed a new PA who took over supervision of Cristina’s work.  We drew out the new staff structure so it was clear who was responsible for what and to whom, giving the new PA and Cristina some joint projects to help them establish a good working relationship.
  8. Make rules and reasons clear. Sometimes Cristina needs a specific thing pointing out because it hasn’t been made clear enough.  Rules such as not taking personal calls in work time might seem obvious, but we always outline the obvious to everyone so that we are not relying on assumptions but clear facts and reasons why.  This works well and no one feels they are singled out or blamed for anything.
  9. Problems should be discussed and solutions found together.  Blame and discipline need not be part of any small business owners day to day management.  If we have a problem we identify it and discuss what needs to change, how we might support that and then get on with it.   This openness allows my team to tell me when I have done or not done something and it has caused a problem for them!  It’s just become a normal way of working for us all and again leads to greater productivity and better services in the end.  Trust in each other is at the heart of this and I can see it working best in a small business.
  10. Try to build up your employees skills by identifying their training needs. These days that can be done through webinars and you tube videos, never has training been so accessible.  Keep a record and encourage all your staff to have a Professional development target and log all they are learning that benefits them in their job.  This includes diversity and disability awareness but make sure you choose training that looks at positive abilities and does not just trot out outdated stereotypes of disabled people.

If, in the end, you or your employee can’t make something work, or somehow your employee has been dishonest with you, employers who have done all they can to support and make those reasonable adjustments can let someone go with the knowledge they have done the best they can.

There is a lot more help out there.  Busy small business owners who don’t assess the different needs of their staff and don’t consider using the talents of the many differently abled people in the workforce are missing out on some very talented people.   Start by committing to because Disability Confident employer by signing up for this scheme –

…Then chat to your existing workforce, talk to one of the disability employment charities or the job centre about making a space in your company for someone who might have a disability who could do the work you offer.  There is help out there and you as a small business owner could make a huge difference to your workforce as well as helping someone fulfil their potential.

Other people with different condition may not need an employment coach or long term support, but just some of those reasonable adjustments that enable them to give you their best work.

Further Reading

Advice from autistic Y7s to Y6s going to secondary school

My name is Lynn.  I am an autism specialist teacher and I work in a couple of secondary schools.  At the end of the year I always give the Y7s a little celebration for surviving their first year of secondary school.

Surviving has been the word that most of them use when they look back over their first year and this year, with lockdowns, online learning and bubbles, it has been more of a challenge than usual.

But one exercise we do is to write what advice they would give to the next lot of Y6s coming to their school and here is what they have said…

a picture of people inside a wooden maze.

On getting lost…

“Actually it didn’t take as long as I thought to find my way around.”

“Just find a teacher, they always know where the classes are.”

“You can try to ask an older pupil, but not a group, cos’ sometimes they trick you and send you in the wrong direction.”

“I just made sure I followed other kids in my class.  Someone always knew where we were going.”


a picture of a referee holding a red card

On rules…”

“We had a lot of rules at primary school, so secondary isn’t that different.  You just get a lot of nagging about them at first and then it eases off.”

“The rules seem a lot at first, but they’re not as bad as you think.”

“Some rules don’t make sense, but it’s best not to argue about them.”

We get these marks for bad things and credits for good things.  Don’t be scared, everyone makes mistakes… and the bad marks don’t mean a lot if you only get the odd one.”

“I’m not sure of the point of the credits.  But I suppose they are like getting a good work sticker at primary school.”

“Sometimes you might get told off and it’s not fair.  I have tried arguing but it doesn’t work.  Best just to let it pass.”

“…Unless it is serious, then ask to talk to someone and explain it.  Your parents might have to explain for you sometimes.”

silhouette of two girls putting their hands together in a heart shape

On making friends…

“I found it best to talk to a person I sit next to.  I asked them if they wanted to be my friend on the second day.  Then they introduced me to other people so I didn’t have to approach them.”

“Just ask someone what they like and hope it is something you like too.”

“At this school there is Mrs B who will help you if you haven’t made friends at first.  She gets people together and supports them.”

“I wish we had the lunchtime clubs on this year.  I was looking forward to the history club.  It’s a good idea to join a club where other people have the same interest.”

girl holding her head looking at papers

On homework…

“We don’t get as much as I was worried about.  It was loads at first then it got less as the year went on.”

“I get my mum to help me still.”

“You have to get used to writing it down and listening to the instructions.  Sometimes my parents have to check with the teacher what I need to do.”

“I like going to the homework club – It gets it done at school and I don’t need to take it home.”

“You get a detention if you don’t do your homework.  I was scared the first time, but they just made me do the homework, and I got help with it.  It wasn’t writing loads of lines like on the Simpsons.”

a picture of a teacher with a question mark in place of her head

On teachers…

“I was scared that I wouldn’t know if I was going to get bad or good teachers.  There are more good ones than bad ones generally.”

“If a teacher shouts its usually to get people to be quiet.  The best thing to do is to be quiet the first time they say it.”

“I love some of my teachers.  They are really nice.”

“You can worry when a teacher shouts or the class is noisy.  But remember, that’s just one lesson.  The next one can be better.”

group of people one is pointing to a piece of paper

On learning support….

“Knowing you have teachers and teaching assistants you can go and ask for help is good.  Find out where your helpful people are as soon as you can.”

“You might be really quiet in class but you can usually ask teaching assistants even if they are there to help someone else.”

“You might be really loud in class!  Teaching assistants are usually kind so listen to them when they tell you it’s time to be quiet.”

“I told my support teacher that I hated getting changed in PE and now I can get changed in the accessible toilet.”

a crowd of people

On corridors, canteens and playgrounds…

“Find all the quiet places in school.  Places where you can go at break times and you can meet your friends there. ”

“I would try to get out of class quickly and get through the corridors before they get too busy.”

“I would say, walk with the teaching assistant who helps you or another pupil.  Other kids get out of their way and behave when there is an adult in the corridor.”

“I really like the school food.  It’s much better than the primary school food.  Plan to go to the canteen with your timetable – the days when you are in classes near it are the best.”

a boy in silhouette holding his arms up in celebration


“I am proud at how I have been independent this year.  At primary school I had to go to another room for most of my lessons.  Be proud of what you will be able to do.”

“Try to think of a good thing that happened every day.”

“Give yourself a break to chill out after school.  But set yourself a homework routine or else your parents will nag you a lot.”

“Do interesting things outside school.  I am so glad I can go to football again. ”

“I joined the school choir – it was terrifying at first but now I love it.”

Tips from Lynn!

“When you get your timetable colour code it with the same colours as your subject books.  It will be easier to find your books quickly.”

“Have a box or drawer at home where you put all your school books.”

“Pack your bag the night before (the colour coding can help).  You will find the mornings so much easier.”

“Try different times and places to do homework.  Some people have found a privacy screen useful to set out a space to do homework.  Then pack it away when you have done.”

“After 10 years of helping autistic Y7 children in schools – I often find that they grow and mature and get through secondary school if we give them some help to do so.  I love seeing my students leave in Y11and go on to what they want to do next.  It might be rocky sometimes, but mostly it is going to be okay.”

Why does my autistic child suddenly meltdown “out of nowhere”?

outline of a person with words such as stress, anxiety and pressure written inside.

*”A meltdown (or shutdown) is when a child becomes very distressed and emotionally overwhelmed.  They can be caused by many different factors, such as situations that are unpredictable, sudden changes or things not happening as the child was expecting.  They can also be delayed as the child takes time to process a difficult situation and sometimes are caused by a build up of stressors so not one particular thing has triggered the distress. The child in meltdown does not intend to hurt or harm or indeed cannot often control what is happening to them.  They are often frightened, overloaded and the way we react to them can often make it worse, not that we ever intend that!”   Lynn McCann  

 Understanding some of the triggers and also how to support a child from meltdown to recovery can take some working out – but here, Sarah Loveridge, one of our specialist teachers, gives some advice on where to look first. 

Whether you’re a teacher, TA or parent of an autistic child, we’ve all been there. Everything seems to be going fine and then seemingly “out of nowhere” we’ve got a huge meltdown on our hands. Where did it come from? Was it something we said?

Believing that meltdowns come from nowhere is a dangerous notion. It leads to a sense of helplessness and frustration in us as adults as we scramble to try and figure out what’s caused this outburst of emotion. It also changes our perceptions towards autistic (and non-autistic!) children, painting them as unpredictable, out of control or just plain stroppy.  Behaviour is often a communication that something isn’t right or that some need isn’t being met (whether that’s a toddler “needing” a toy at the supermarket, or a teenager “needing” to feel accepted, loved and supported – both demonstrations of a certain behaviour tell us something).

It might help to picture your autistic child as a bottle of fizzy drink. Every time they get triggered, they’re shaken up a little bit. This keeps happening throughout the day until suddenly the lid comes off and their emotions (sometimes quite literally) go everywhere. This is what we call a meltdown (or shutdown, when they internalise their distress) and it can often appear to come “out of nowhere”. This is because the triggers have been building up gradually until it all becomes too much.

a cola bottle having been shook up and the lift bursts off

The good news is that whilst with autistic children it’s never one-size-fits-all, there are usually some patterns we can look out for to help us support our autistic children before they hit the meltdown stage.

If we can spot these triggers and patterns throughout the day, then we’re one step closer to supporting our children better through the chaos that is daily life. This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some key areas to look out for:

Often it is the actions of others that can cause the build up of stress and pressure.  If the child isn’t being supported correctly at school, or if they are being picked on, left out or bullied by others.  Check these issues out too.  If a child can’t tell you, you will have to investigate and trust your instincts as parents or as professionals.  


1. Whether your autistic child is non-verbal, talks a lot and has mature vocabulary, or is somewhere in between, they all have their own ways of communicating. If we push them to communicate constantly in a way that is difficult for them (eg lots of verbal communication with little or no visual support) then this can be very draining and may lead to meltdowns later in the day.

TOP TIP: Use visuals as much as possible rather than just relying on verbal communication, and make it a two way street. Get them to show you how they’re feeling or what they want, rather than trying to explain it. Use visual timetables to plan out the day and prepare them for any changes. Show them pictures of new or unfamiliar places (like the dentist) rather than just telling them. Using visuals can reduce anxiety and therefore hopefully also reduce meltdowns. We also need to give processing time – so pause often and don’t be too quick to repeat or rephrase something.

2. Some autistic children are very keen to chat, and will talk to you for hours about their special interest or ask a hundred questions about why you’re doing something. Although this may sound completely effortless it can actually be very draining, especially if they’re talking to somebody new.

TOP TIP: If you spot a pattern of your child being very talkative in the morning and then having consistent meltdowns in the afternoon, this might mean they need some help spreading their communication energy out throughout the day. Make sure they have access to sensory activities to support their energy levels and if you say you will have a chat later – make that a specific time and keep to it. They might need help recognising that they need some alone time in the afternoon to recharge. It’s all about balance – if they’re able to do a 2 hour presentation to a room full of people, great! Don’t stop them from doing that, but be aware that they will probably need to ensure nothing else is planned in for the rest of the day.

Social Interaction

3. This is heavily linked to communication and can be vastly different from day to day, depending on who your child is interacting with and how that interaction goes. Again, if they are in a new or unfamiliar situation (eg talking to a grandparent they haven’t seen for 3 years) then this will put more pressure and strain on them than if they’re talking to you or someone else they see regularly (and like!)

TOP TIP: Put some structure in place around social interactions. Maybe they could play their favourite card game with the new person and explain the rules carefully at the start. Maybe they can take some pictures of their special interest so they have something familiar to talk about. Keep the interactions short if possible, and you might want to discuss this time limit with your child beforehand. Again, they may need some time to regulate/recharge after a new interaction, so plan this into your day too.

And let’s remember the other side too – it shouldn’t all be up to the autistic child to change their behaviour. Tell the relation or visitor what their role is in this, for example you could encourage them not to keep asking questions or demand hugs. Ask them to give your child space if they want it and time to process. If you manage the time and intensity of new social interactions carefully, this can minimise the risk of a meltdown later on.

4. Social interactions in large groups can be very difficult for autistic children, as they try to focus in on lots of different people talking at once (especially if they have sensory needs – we’ll come back to that). Again, these times are often unstructured (eg playtime at school or playing football with friends) and it can be draining for your child to try and work out all the social rules required for them to “fit in” with those around them. Should they shout “goal!” every time someone scores? Does everyone hi-five or just certain people? How much eye contact does this game require? Why is everyone wearing a coat even though it’s sunny?

TOP TIP: Encourage the other children to explain rules of games very clearly (eg in our running race, where do we start and end? When do we go? etc)  – it shouldn’t all be reliant on the autistic child changing to fit in so teach neurotypical (non-autistic) children how to adapt too. Give your autistic child an “out”, whether this is a space where they can go and sit if it starts to become overwhelming or a “job” they can do to get away for a bit. Again, be aware that after spending time in a group, your child may need some time alone or with one “safe” person to recharge. And also let’s remember, some autistic children might use playtime as a chance to regulate themselves after sitting in a noisy classroom during lessons so sitting alone might be just what they need.

Remember to give all children some specific praise when they interact well with those around them – things like “well done, you made space for each other” or “thanks for allowing everyone to choose a rule in your game” or “well done for giving each other a turn”. By stating specifically what they did well, we can give them some helpful clues about how to understand the social things around them whilst also explaining to others the social communication of your autistic child.


5. Sensory needs that aren’t being met can be a constant source of frustration, confusion and sometimes even pain for an autistic child. For example, they may be hypo-sensitive which means their senses are under-stimulated and they fidget because their muscles are not giving the brain strong enough signals. To counteract this feeling, they rock on their chair or get up and walk around to wake their body up. On the other hand, they might be hyper-sensitive which means their senses are over-stimulated and light/sound/textures can become overwhelming. To deal with this, they may sing to themselves to block out other sounds, put their hands over their ears, run away or may hide under tables to get away from the light.

TOP TIP: It can be easy to create a “sensory safe space” at home or in your classroom by using a teepee, pop up tent or even just a blanket draped over a table. Ideally it will be quiet and fairly dimly lit, to minimise the potential for sensory over-stimulation. Create it together so it’s somewhere special and personalised for them. You could put a favourite book in there, or some music they like or a big beanbag to give their muscles some sensory feedback (especially if they’re hyposensitive) — personalise it together. This can then be used as a retreat throughout the day (before they become overwhelmed) to help them regulate, therefore reducing the risk of future meltdowns. It can also be a safe space to access during a meltdown to help them calm.

Remember – if they need movement then make it happen! Let them sit on a peanut or body ball, use a trampet, go for a walk or stretch with a yoga band. Let’s not teach children to suppress these needs but rather give them strategies and space to help them get sensory feedback in appropriate and safe ways.

6. If your autistic child’s senses are being over-stimulated they may live each day in a constant state of high alert. We might think they are anxious and worried all the time.  Ever wonder why your child’s eyes dart around the room whenever someone moves? Or how they know exactly where each fire exit is? Or why they “patrol” the perimeter of your picnic blanket? Things that may seem small to us, like preferring a certain pencil or not liking the consistency of some foods can have a huge impact on how well autistic children are able to function from day to day.

TOP TIP: Don’t assume that a child is just being “fussy” or “picky” if they refuse certain objects or food. If possible, open a conversation with them about why they don’t like it. What in particular is making them squirm or refuse? Make a little note of it and see if you can start to spot any patterns. This will help you to understand your child more and figure out ways how to work around potential triggers that may lead to a meltdown later in the day. Pick your battles – do they have to eat porridge for breakfast or could they have some dry cereal? Is it vital that they wear a coat or can they manage without?

Recommended further reading – The Out-of-Sync child by Carol Stock-Kranovitz.

 There is so much more we could say on this and we know that every child is different so be kind to yourself. It will take time and patience to figure out those specific trigger points but hopefully by starting to spot patterns throughout the day, the links between potential triggers and future meltdowns will become a little bit clearer.  Your child will communicate to you and you can be their advocate.  If they need adjustments, it’s the right thing to do.

Keep going, you’re doing a great job!

Written by Sarah Loveridge –  Reachout ASC Teacher, May 2021

Supporting autistic children through bereavement.

A young girl in a red dress sitting on the right of a long bench with a teddy at the opposite side of the bench.

Written by Kirsten Illingworth Specialist TA with Reachout ASC.

“Autistic children  may react to a bereavement in different ways to neurotypical children. Some of the underlying perceptual and processing difficulties observed in autistic children may affect their understanding of death and their reaction to a bereavement. Autistic children, like any others, need their grief both recognised and understood and will need opportunities to express how they feel” (Katie Koehler DClinPsych 2016).

It is difficult to explain death and bereavement to a child and more so to an autistic child. During the recent Covid-19 epidemic many families have lost a loved one. For families with an autistic child, this is made harder as they struggle to express how they feel or understand their emotions. As well as suffering the loss of the person that has died, autistic children can be further distressed by all the changes that might happen in their day-to-day lives as a result of the bereavement.
In this blog, I will try to give you tips to help you support your autistic child to understand what is happening.


Involve your child and try to prepare them. If someone is dying due to illness explain what is happening, keep them informed of any changes. If it is a sudden death this is not possible, but they will pick up and be aware of any changes within the household such as the atmosphere or routines. Talking and explaining about what has/is happening and also reassuring the child that it will not happen to them may relieve some anxiety and stress for that child. You can do this matter-of-factly and simply. Try not to expect that they will feel the same emotions as you. Keeping your own emotions calm as you talk to them can be difficult but having something to read or look at (such as symbols and pictures) can give you both something tangible to focus on.


Autistic children may not respond to the death of someone close to them in the same way as other children, but this does not mean they are not grieving. Processing the emotion and facts of the death can take much more time than you might expect. Don’t go on their immediate response to judge how well they are processing it. Changes in behaviour, increased anxiety, confusion, refusal to do things they normally do as well as talking about death are some of the warning signs that you must watch out for as this could mean your child needs more help and support as they are not coping as well as you thought.


Autistic children can find recognising/expressing feelings difficult. To help your child to express/recognise their feelings you can look at different emotions in stories, pictures or, in the people around them so they can try and understand how they feel. We have some emotional literacy ideas on our blog about autism and anxiety.


When explaining ‘Death’ to an autistic child they may need help with understanding the idea of death as well as opportunities to express their grief.  You can use simple, concrete language and try to avoid using euphemisms such as ‘lost’, ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’. You may need to explain what dead means in concrete terms – ‘When someone is dead their body is no longer working and their heart has stopped. A dead body cannot move or feel anything, so there is no pain.’

Memory Box

A good way to help your child could be to talk about the person who has died. You could maybe create a memory box of things that belonged to the person who has died or that reminds the child of the person that has died. By making it together with a trusted adult may allow them to open up about their feelings and worries.

Social stories

Social stories are a great way to explain things to autistic children. They can be tailored to your child’s needs and help explain feelings and emotions as well as events, such as funerals and what has happened.  Lynn has created three social stories related to this topic in her book “Stories that Explain” but whatever you do in writing a social story keep it factual, positive and remember you are explaining the concept to them, not how they must feel or react. Give them choices about what they can do and explain the ways other people might feel or react without putting pressure on them to respond in a particular way.

Finally, we must let your autistic child know that it is ‘OK’ to have these feelings of loss and grief, be upset or angry, or even cry or not cry. Everybody is an individual and will deal with death differently. Attached are some resources that can help you and your child.

Katie Koehler DClinPsych (2016) Supporting children and young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder through bereavement, Bereavement Care, 35:3, 94-101, DOI: 10.1080/02682621.2016.1254437

Autism Bereavement Resources

(we do not endorse any particular resources, these are here for you to search and find the resources that work for your child).  – Social Stories Book by Lynn McCann   –    Free social stories Lots of resources on this site such as the one below:  – small cost resources  – blog – you tube video:

Autism and bereavement:
Downloadable book to read with children.

Supporting SEND pupils during School Covid Testing

Even though we are in Lockdown 3 many secondary schools have vulnerable and SEND children in school and WILL be doing the Covid Testing that the government brought in at the beginning of term. Here is as much information as I could find for you.

I am a child who thrives on routine and familiarity, I need you to understand my sensory sensitivities and make my environment safe for me.  I want to learn, and I want to be understood and included.

But the rules are changing again…

A new huge change in my school…

Covid testing is coming, and I am scared…

Read more

SEND book Review

​Inclusion for Primary School Teachers by Nancy Gedge

Supporting Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities by Cherryl Drabble 

Both published by Bloomsbury (2016)

Reviewing these books was a little daunting.   I know both these ladies well and have great respect for their SEND knowledge and experience.  If you follow either of them on Twitter, you will know that they always talk sense, give great advice and challenge those who don’t consider the SEND children in our schools.  However, I wanted to read and review these books with an open mind and without prejudice and so over the Christmas hols I’ve settled down with a glass of wine (red for each, just to be fair) and jumped into their world of advice for teachers.   Both books are aimed at non-SEND-specialist new or young teachers, SENCOs or teachers wanting a refresher and update on the SEND Code of practice.  Both fulfilled the brief, in my opinion, but I’m going to give you more information about each because they are different books – and in that way they complement each other very well.

Supporting Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities by Cherryl Drabble

This book is in two sections.  The first explains what a teacher needs to know about teaching SEND pupils and gives plenty of practical advice about specific conditions and general SEND teaching.  It is aimed at providing continuous CPD for a teacher and for that it needs to be used as a handbook to dip in and out of.  What’s unusual is the reference to using Twitter as a source of learning, help, advice and support as teacher of SEND children.  It was an honour to be included under the section about Autism/ASD as that is my specialism, and I have since looked up and followed all the other tweeters mentioned. There are some helpful questions as you go along which can help you audit your SEND teaching and identify the gaps in your knowledge or practice.  If a teacher has the time, this would be very useful.  I can see time being a major barrier for some, but the book tries to help in that it works in small stepped sections and so a teacher could easily use it as a CPD and PDR tool as they go along.

This book is unique in the relationship it has with Twitter as a source of good practice examples, good advice and support from a wide range of SEND professionals.  A teacher new to Twitter could easily learn to use it well and get the most out of it from the Twitter Tips throughout the book.

The second section is something that SENCOs could use to deliver SEND training in their schools and I like the fact that Cherryl has provided this section.  It’s not something you find in many books.  This section is ideal for SENCOs and to have a book that teaches you how to run CPD within your school and gives you step by step advice is brilliant.  I’m working through it to use some of the ideas for delivering my courses on ASC and Cherryl is obviously a competent and capable CPD developer in her own setting and beyond.  We can learn a lot from her.  I’m very glad she has written this section and I think it could be of great benefit in helping schools get to grips with developing their SEND CPD. 

Inclusion for Primary School Teachers by Nancy Gedge

Nancy’s book is different. It has one of the best explanations of the SEND Code of Practice, what EHCPs, differentiation and the graduated approach are, that there would be no excuse for any teacher to be ignorant of these things if they read this book. There’s a good chapter on the social model of disability and helps a teacher think about how the expectations they have of their SEND pupils .I liked the chapter on relationships because the best teachers are good at relationships with everyone they are working with whilst understanding that they are the one responsible for making school successful for the child with SEND. As an outside agency, I meet lots of teachers and when we work as a team, the children do benefit and thrive. The chapters on behaviour and assessment are useful to help teachers develop a positive approach with high expectations for the children with SEND. There is a useful chapter on terms and acronyms, there are so many in education these days that a handy dictionary of them all will be very useful. Throughout the book Nancy refers to the ‘inclusive teacher’ and it is a good thing for all teachers to strive to be.



I thought that both of these books might be too simplistic for me as I’ve been working in SEND education for many years – but I found both of them informative, easy to read and refreshing.  Their view of the SEND child is positive, inclusive and with high expectations of them being able to succeed in mainstream or special schools.  I have started recommending both books to people on the courses I teach, for SENCOs and for teachers alike.  It is all too easy to think that some children can’t succeed and are not in the right place to be educated, but these books can help teachers be sure that they have tried all the support strategies they can, and more than that – both books insist that the most important approach is to know each child and their strengths as well as their difficulties and expect that they can make progress and achieve.  All teachers would benefit from a good understanding of the SEND system as it currently stands and a time of reflection on their own practice.  It’s great that there are so many good ideas and pointers of where to find out more about so many different SEND conditions.  As they are different in their focus, I would recommend reading Nancy’s first for the solid foundation of knowledge and ideas it gives, and then Cherryl’s to help you assess, develop and review your SEND teaching as an on-going toolkit, as well as combining both of them for the wealth of ideas and tips for practical strategies in the classroom.  They are both good handbooks for your teaching of SEND pupils, let’s face it, every child with SEND is different so you’ll always need to adapt your approaches for each child you teach.


5 Ways to support Autistic Students through Exams

It’s that time of year again. Emma and I have been spending some of last sessions with our autistic Y11 students, supporting them and their teachers through these next few weeks as the GCSE exams loom.

We thought it may be a good time share some of the wisdom we have learned along the way.   Here’s 5 top tips to help you if you are a teacher or parent supporting a young person through this time. Whatever it is they may or may not achieve, it’s just one part of education…and after years of doing this, many of them do just fine…

1. Tell the truth

It is often the subtle and not so subtle pressures from what teachers and parents say that causes so much stress.

We do tell young people that these exams are the most important thing in their life.

Parents pick up on this false importance and put pressure on their child. There’s pressure from assemblies, media and young people passing these messages between them. Teachers have been put under so much pressure.  Exam results are what gives the school its status and many are in fear of their jobs if students don’t achieve expected grades. That pressure is naturally put onto young people and they are the ones who are supposed to ‘perform’ under that pressure.

Here are some truths: 

  • You will not die if you don’t do the exams.
  • You will not be a failure in life if the results are not what you or your teachers were aiming for.
  • You may do even better than you thought you might.
  • Colleges reassess their pupils throughout the first few months so if you are put on an unsuitable course you can often change courses.
  • GCSEs are a step onto the next thing.   Most colleges want students to come so will find a course that you can do and are interested in for you.
  • There are different ways to get a job in the area you are interested in. There are more kinds of jobs than you can ever imagine.  Including being self-employed.
  • English and maths are the most useful GCSEs to have.  You can retake them when there is less pressure from so many other subjects.  My autistic employee took her GCSE maths when she was 28 and is taking her GCSE English now she is 30.  I met a young man and his mum today who I used to teach.  He went to a special school and is now at college. He is about to sit his GCSE maths and English because he now is ready…he wasn’t at 16.
  • Some people take longer to get where they are going.  Life is NOT a race.
  • Exam results are NOT a measure of your worth as a person.

Take off pressure, tell the truth. Yes, tests and exams have a place in our education system but they ARE NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. They are helpful to get onto the next step, but there are many routes into the world of work and life so we have to stop putting the pressure on.

2. Find out what they are thinking and really listen

I am a big fan of mapping things out.  I find that autistic young people (and many others) have so much going on in their brain and so many bits of ‘advice’ given to them verbally, that recalling any of it, especially when it is needed can be impossible.  Others recall all of it but are too overwhelmed to use what they need and become very anxious to do EVERYTHING everyone said.  Too much reliance on verbal language means the energy they need to process that is often much greater than it is for non-autistic students.

I sit with students and ask them to tell me what they are thinking, feeling, worried, confident, confused about.  I write all this down on a large piece of paper.   Often things come out that no-one realised they were bothered about such as “one teacher in year 10 said I wouldn’t get to university if I didn’t get an A in French” (this really happened).

The mapping out of what they say does certain things: 

  • Prove that you are listening to them.
  • Gives you insights and information you may not have realised.
  • Enables you both to work together to highlight what is the biggest worry and what possible solutions there could be.

For some students just getting it out and being listened to is enough.  For others, simple solutions present themselves from what you see on your map.  For others, they may need extra support, changes and help to get them where they need to be.   Often, we use the same piece of paper (leave space for this) to add some perspective.  So, if you know they think they are going to fail, then you can remind them that they have attended all their lessons, done okay in previous exams, or whatever facts you can give to help them get that particular worry into perspective.

3. Aim to explain and manage the anxiety

A few nerves can help us be more alert and focussed, but the amount of anxiety many young people feel is way over this point.  Young people are in a state of high alert, their systems so full of anxiety that they are fighting the urge to ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and some do have many meltdowns or shutdowns at this time.  So, we really should be concerned with reducing anxiety so the young person can be calm enough to think clearly and do their best.

Many autistic students we support are very anxious at this time of year, not only because they are going to have to try and remember information for an exam, but they don’t know which information they need to remember, can’t predict or prepare for what the actual questions will be and so many other things are going to change around the exams (and probably already have).

Sensory Needs

There will be sensory differences, a completely different timetable, familiar routines will change.   Prepare the young person for this, and make sure familiar things are highlighted.   This is a good time to write lists, use a calendar, or even return to using a visual timetable.  Show what is familiar and add times of relaxation, sensory comforts and rest.  Talk to your young person, tell them the most important things are that they can get through this, it is temporary and that eating, drinking and resting are the priorities (even over revision if that is a huge stressor as it is in many of our pupils).   Make those sensory adjustments (a quiet room, sitting at the back or whatever will help them and make sure the invigilators know about those adjustments).

Take away the pressure

I often tell parents to take ALL pressure away and even act like they don’t mind how the young person does in the exams.  For many autistic young people, the pressure is from within themselves, and their teachers, so a home which reduces the pressure is so helpful for them.   Be careful to acknowledge your own worries and anxiety.   Much of what you worry about is catastrophising too, banish the negative what ifs from your own mind.   Start to look for opportunities rather than only seeing the barriers.

Affirm them

For some students we will make affirmation key rings to remind ourselves of these truths.  You can make your own depending on what would help, or these from GoZen are good too.


4. Keep routine, reduce demands

Prepare for the changes of environment, routine and what to talk about after the exam. One of my students was very anxious about having two exams in one day, but the biggest stress was whether he’d have enough time to have his lunch in between.  The hall for exams was at the other end of the school from the dining area, so we found another quiet area, nearer to the hall which would have given him time and space to eat without being worried by more than he needed to worry about.

The biggest thing to help is reminded you young person what has finished.  If necessary, write the exams on post it notes and take them OFF the calendar when they are finished.  Or just put a big green tick through the date.  It is done, finished.

Keep your routines

Keep as much of the regular routine that the young person wants.  Familiarity will help them feel safe.  Also plan some routines for the days they are not in school, don’t make them all revision days, but allow Playstation time and a routine for bedtime if possible (good luck with that!)   Plan in meal routines.

What cones next?

Think of projects they might be interested in for the summer break.   This will depend on your young person and their capacity to engage after the exams.  Give them time to rest too.   One family sat with their autistic young person and put a list of things they’d like to do and put them on post-it notes as a choice board.  The young person could choose one a week, then put it back on the board in case they wanted to do it again.  They ended up doing the same thing every week for the whole summer, but it was really successful in keeping them engaged and structured ready for college in the September.

If they do not want to go over it in any detail, or at all, then let it go.  If they do, listen and then remind them it is finished.  Help them to move on to thinking about the next thing.   Make sure they have assured ‘down time’ or activity time after the exam,  what they have chosen to do.   Some might like to bounce on the trampoline, others need to hide under the duvet.    Let them recover in their own way and if there is no need for them to stay at school, let them go home straight after the exam.

5. For those mainstream autistic students who are unlikely to do well in exams

Keep it in perspective for them.  Give regular and undemanding times of support.  If they have not revised all year it is unlikely they are going to start now.  If they can be persuaded to do a bit, find the thing that will engage them the most,  such as an App or computer based activity.

For some it is about the clear distinction between school and home, full stop, or just that school takes up all their spoons (see spoon theory here) and they just CAN’T.   Putting more pressure on at this time of the year is likely to have the opposite effect you have desired.  Bribery rarely works (although some negotiation for a treat afterwards works for some, I’m not a fan of it, it is often just more pressure to perform, I’d rather give the treat just for being them!)   They may do much better than you think and be able to move on to the next steps.  We have done a lot of work by now with our Y11 autistic students who are not good at exams.   We have made plans, found out what they might do that they are interested in and applied for college, already the transition for college has begun and most of them, despite what the GSCEs will result in, have a Plan A, B, C or whatever they need.  It’s not too late to discuss the possibilities for the future, charities do support young people with disabilities into employment in some areas.   Find out what there is and have it to hand for when your young person is ready to listen.

It’s not the end of the world

Go over the truths at the beginning of this post and remind your student that this is NOT the end of the world.   There are too many autistic young people giving up on education and feeling hopeless about life at this stage because all our systems tell them they are failures. I can’t bear it.

Let them rest and recover over the summer.  Let them do what they like and emotionally recover from the trauma that school may have caused them.  I cannot tell you how to get a 16 year old autistic young person out of their bedroom and into gainful employment, you have to let them recover and work from what they DO like, what they are good at.   Even if all they do is play games online.   Go into their world and start from there.  Have some non-negotiables, like being safe, eating meals or whatever you can manage.   You may be able to get help, you may have to find help and advice yourself, but no autistic young person is a failure and there can be a place for them in this society.

Get help

I wish I could do more about this because it is such a hard time for parents, but my best advice is to get online and start to talk to the autistic community.   Find autistic adults who have worked in advocacy and advice or training and ask what they suggest.   They have probably been through something similar and they are the best people to help and advice you for your young person.

And from now to August when the results come out…remember to allow you and your child to BREATHE!

Here’s a link to the ideas to help the transition to college / FE

Here’s the link to supporting Autistic students in FE

​This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Autism and Christmas – Teachers are you ready?

Ok teachers this is THE half term when I get so many more emails about autistic pupils in school and their behaviour.   I wanted to warn you all and help you get ready, but not for the challenging behaviour,  no,  it’s supporting your autistic pupils at this time of year that I want to help you with so that the chances of their behaviour changing is lessened.

Of course, the culprit, the trigger for behaviour at this time of year is most likely to be Christmas, not Christmas itself, but the way we DO Christmas.

This is what happens in most primary schools…

When we are talking about behaviour changes please remember that not all autistic pupils will have challenging behaviours when they are overwhelmed – they may just as easily have withdrawn behaviour and become very quiet or unusually tired all the time.  Please watch out for the particular signs of stress in the child you teach. 


Have you started this yet?  In the next few weeks; schools will be starting to introduce and practice for whatever Christmas play or carol service they put on.  The usual routine will begin to change as practices take the place of PE (we’ve got the hall booked anyway)  and other lessons.  Singing, performing, dressing up, CHANGE can all be overwhelming for an autistic child.   But by far the most unsettling thing or many of them is the constant, unpredictable changes to the timetable.  A spontaneous play practice might be exciting for many of the class but for an autistic child it can be a nightmare.

What to do:

  • Write a social story about what the play is about, why you are doing it and what their part in it is.
  • Make sure that you have a ‘play practice’ symbol on their visual timetable.
  • Speak to parents about how they help their child cope with Christmas and what tips they may have for supporting and/or involving their child.
  • If they cannot cope with lots of sitting around and waiting as the play is practiced, then provide a box of activities that are linked to their special interests and let them take it into the hall to play with in a quiet corner.
  • Do what you can to help them be able to take part, then always prepare them for anything new.  Show them costumes beforehand and allow them time to get used to each different thing.
  • Find any way possible for the child to be part of it.  They could have a role they choose themselves, or be in charge of prompting other actors, a role in arranging the music or managing the CD player, be the one who sorts out and gives out costumes, in charge of lighting, or sitting somewhere comfortable, doing something they feel comfortable with, but is included in the performance.  One child who loved dancing was given the role of the star and danced across the stage to her favourite music as the Wise Men followed.
  • Be realistic about evening performances and don’t insist the autistic child should come if it is too much for them.  Try to make sure parents have one successful performance to attend than two or more stressful ones.
A word about parents:

Parents have told me how heartbreaking it is to be told that their child can’t do the Christmas Play.  It’s usually said in a way that makes it sound like it would be too much for the child.  But if we could just make some accommodations, then the majority of autistic children can be included.  I can’t tell you how much this would mean to parents.  And make sure the child is named on the programme and is photographed with the whole class.

And be extra nice in saving the child’s parents a seat at the performance.  Ask them where they’d like to sit and make them feel it’s an honour to have them there.  You will do something so small to you but so huge to parents that they will never forget your kindness.

And please read this from @MrEFinch for some more great ideas about how to make your Christmas play inclusive of all children. 🙂

You might think it’s exciting for all the children when you stay late at school one Friday night to put up all the hand-made decorations the children have been making for weeks so that you can hear their gasps of amazement when they walk through the doors on the Monday morning.  But for an autistic child, you will have completely and unexpectedly changed their whole environment and that will cause them a great shock and anxiety.  I have known many autistic children flatly refuse to go into school because the decorations were put up suddenly, or there was a Christmas tree by the door they go into school, and others who have had meltdowns because they cannot cope with the sensory overload.

What to do:

  • Write a social story to explain why we make and display decorations at Christmas.
  • Cut down on the amount of decorations you make.  You really don’t have to do all of them.  Try to keep the classroom tidy.
  • Involve the autistic child in deciding where the decorations should go and try to have one or two decoration-free areas they can go to if overwhelmed.
  • Involve the autistic child in decorating the school Christmas tree and have some say in where it should go.


We go craft crazy in Primary schools at Christmas.  Glitter comes in huge tubs and boy do we use it liberally!  But glue, glitter, many competing textures, shiny paper can be a big sensory distraction or overload for some autistic children which can send them into sensory overload or meltdown.  (BTW – I love glitter but I’m really aware of the effect it may have on autistic children).

What to do:

  • Slow down!  It’s better to do one or two things well rather than lots of hurried, half-finished projects that get left around the room in a mess.
  • Go with what the autistic child is interested in.  For example, if they like Lego, let them make a Lego Christmas tree, scene or angel.  Take a photo and put that on their Christmas card, calendar and if necessary, even every craft project if that makes it accessible to them.
  • Don’t insist the autistic child must do the craft.  They may need to do something that is connected to their regular routine instead.  For example, if it’s usually a maths lesson, let them do maths if that helps them stay calm.


More sensory overload!   Different clothes, loud music, unstructured event, everything and everybody looking different.   Food, sweets, sometimes an ‘act’ such as a clown.   A party can easily be overwhelming for an autistic child.   However, it might also be an opportunity for them to relax, not have work demands and share some of their favourite music or dance moves!

What to do:

  • Write a social story about what will happen at the party and what they can do to prepare for it.  Explain that they can wear different clothes to school and that’s ok.  Make sure parents have a copy to read at home.
  • Put the party date and how long it will last on a calendar in the classroom and have one at home too.
  • Let them choose some music to play, and if they feel more comfortable, give them the job of being DJ.
  • Make sure there is a quiet space for them to go to if things get too much.
  • Practice dancing!
  • Prepare a ‘buddy group’ of friends before the party to support and help the autistic child on the day.
  • Encourage them to bring a favourite toy to the party as a point of comfort.
  • Have a sensory area in the party or just outside so they can go to it and have time out whenever they need it.  If this means asking a member of staff to keep an eye on them for the party, then arrange that but don’t have them hovering over the child all the time.


A strange man, in a strange red suit comes into the room with a big voice calling out “Ho, Ho, Ho!” and then we ask children to go up to him and receive a wrapped up present which they have no idea about what may be inside.  Considering your autistic pupil, this may be a terrifying experience for them.   They may be ok with it, but understanding how your child may react will be important.

What to do:

  • Show the pupil pictures of the actual person who is dressing up as Father Christmas in the outfit they will be wearing.   Add this to a social story to explain that this person will be bringing a present for all the children.
  • Some children with autism will need to know what will be in the present and it is ok to tell them.   Surprises may not be something they can cope with.
  • Read the story of St Nicholas to help older children understand why we have Father Christmas.


All the things that happen for Christmas are not what we do normally.  As the last couple of weeks arrive, everyone is tired, the rest of the children are all excited and the usual routines are often abandoned for play practice, craft or sometimes movies or Christmas colouring sessions.  An autistic child may also be tired, overloaded and exhausted through trying to keep up with all the different things that are happening.   They may be anxious or over excited about Christmas and be finding it difficult to regulate their emotions and responses.

What to do:

  • Please don’t abandon their visual timetable.  It will be more important than ever to communicate what is happening and when.
  • Consider having more sensory calming breaks so that the child has chance to ‘chill out’ or regulate the sensory overload.
  • Have a stack of work they can access that they may prefer to do when others are doing something they find uninteresting or overwhelming.
  • Have a box of toys, activities and magazines connected to their special interests that they can access during the less structured times.


Just be aware that there is no break from the over stimulation that infects our society in the Christmas season.  We are all bombarded by lights, decorations, shiny things, noise, constant repetitive Christmas songs and the anticipation.  An autistic child that finds this overwhelming is going to show this in their behaviour.   Parents are going to be anxious and will have to try to support their child through this the best they can.   Please do speak to parents and ask them how they are ‘doing’ their Christmas.  Then you won’t assume things when you talk to their child.   For example, if they don’t wrap presents because that will freak out their child, then don’t wrap their class present either.

Here’s a useful link to pass onto parents if they don’t already know about it.

Christmas is really about a little baby that was born to bring hope to the world.  No-one was meant to be excluded from that simple message.  I hope that in our classrooms we can do all we can to include everyone in what should be a simple and hopeful time of light in the darkest part of the year.

Merry Christmas everyone.