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that not all autistic pupils will have challenging behaviours when they are overwhelmed – they may just as easily have withdrawn behaviour and become very quiet or unusually tired all the time.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.



Have you noticed? Girls on the Autistic Spectrum.

I’ve recently worked with some schools to assess and apply for an autism diagnosis for girls.  What was interesting was that each school had had some autism training from me and began to realise that these girls showed some of the same characteristics that I had spoken about.   For some, the diagnosis was straight forward.   However, for at least one, it was not so.  (continued below…)

The problem can be that not all doctors who do diagnostic assessments are as up to date as they should be.  They don’t realise that the diagnostic assessments themselves are weighted to the male autism characteristics and that research is still developing that looks at the female autism profile. (Gould and Ashton-Smith, 2011).

Our awareness of this has been helped by female autistic adults, who are themselves seeking diagnosis and then writing about it.  So, authors like Liane Willey-Holliday, Tanya Marshall and Ann Memmott are writing blogs, books and pressing for more research to be done.   We had the ITV programme “Girls with Autism” which aired in July 2019 and the book released by the Limpsfield Grange school in Surrey.   A quick internet search calls up countless articles and information about girls on the spectrum.

But what do you really need to know.  Here’s a short outline of SOME of the features to look out for in girls, and if you think a girl in your class may be on the autism spectrum, then seek advice from an autism specialist teacher or an Educational Psychologist, who will be able to guide you and parents through the process.  But look out for the boys who are masking too as there is no female autism type, it’s just that we have not been looking for the children who mask.

I did a free webinar about autistic girls with the lovely Jodie Smitten who wrote a book with her daughter (

and the webinar can be watched here


  • Boys are often identified by their behaviour.   When they cannot find the words to use, they use actions to make their needs known or in reaction to distressing situations.  Whilst girls can also do this, often girls on the autistic spectrum can be more passive.  They may internalize their distress and be more vulnerable to mental health issues.  They may be withdrawn or ‘moody’ or just ignore the demands, rather than challenge them.
  • Girls may be extreme people pleasers or have no regard for the hierarchy of authority in school so can be seen as cheeky or rude, when they are just stating facts.  Girls, like boys, can take language literally and so misunderstanding and confusion prevents them really ‘getting’ what is going on around them or what the teacher really means.   Girls can also be incredibly articulate and clever in certain subjects.
  • If an autistic girl gets by by imitating the social behaviours of those around her she may not be able to discriminate what are appropriate and what behaviours are not.

Social Communication and Interaction

  • Autistic girls can seem more socially active, but they can want to dominate and be in control of the friendship group or cope by imitating the social behaviour of a group.  This is often because it is the only way they can manage that situation.  Often they cannot cope with jokes, teasing and communication breakdowns.  They may be moody, withdrawn, and become distressed when things are difficult for them.   On the other hand, they may seem to always be on their own, or on the edge of a group, not really knowing how to join in.   One girl said to me, “I didn’t know if someone was my friend until they tell me they are.  I knew someone for a year and when they asked me to go to their house after school, I had to ask them if that meant we were friends.” 
  • Autistic girls can ‘feel’ intensely.  One thing can be intense shame when they don’t get something right, especially socially.  They cannot often tell the difference between a small social mistake, something that everyone else would just brush off and move on, or a big mistake that marks you out as odd. Consequently, a lot of stress an awkwardness can be felt when they are in any classroom groups or social situations.

Social Imagination / Flexibility of Thought

  • Play can seem very imaginative and autistic girls can lose themselves intensely in books and characters.   The play however, can be very strict and controlled.   For example, a doll is called a name, given a character and nothing can change that identity once it has been assigned.   The special interests the girl has can be seemingly usual interests for girls, such as in ponies or celebrities, and they can become very intense and all-consuming and younger interests can still be present in adolescence.  They can be creative and very imaginative and some say they would have preferred to live in their own imaginary worlds which were more predictable and interesting than the real world.  Rosie King says this in her video.
  • Autistic girls can have the same difficulties with lack of organisation and planning as autistic boys might do.  They may have also become organisers who need to know where everything is, or they become very distressed.   Change and new situations will also be difficult and girls can be as likely as boys to exhibit characteristics of PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance).
  • Autistic girls can be fun, talented, clever, and have lots of potential to make a great contribution to the world…Just like the boys!


  • Sensory issues and dealing with a busy, noisy, smelly, confusing world can be the most stressful thing that an autistic girl or boy has to deal with.If you want to know what it is like, watch this clip:

 To encourage you, one girl, in year 5 who received her diagnosis was extremely relieved.   She and her family read all they could about it and she initially began talking about it all the time, often using it as an excuse.   As we spent time with her to help her come to terms with her diagnosis, we looked at lots of positive role models and she asked if she could make a presentation about ASC to show her class,

“because then they might understand me and like me.”

It did indeed help her classmates understand her, and enabled friendships that had previously been disintegrating, start again and rebuild.   that’s not it, not a  ‘happy ever after’ ending and everything is sorted.  This girl is now in Year 6 and likely to be going to a different high school from her friends.  We are working with her and will work with her new school to do the best transition we can but the challenges she will face will be greater than her peers and I only can hope she receives the right support throughout her secondary years.

Here are just some of the great books that can help us understand autistic people in that wider spectrum.


  2. Gould, J. and Ashton-Smith, J. (May 2011) Missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis? Girls and women on the autism spectrum, Good Autism Practice, Vol. 12 No. 1 p 34-41.
  3. (Doctors failing to spot Asperger’s in Girls)

Twitter: Follow @TaniaAMarshall   @Autism_Women    @curlyhairedalis   @ResearchAutism @AutisticGirls_ @CarlyJonesMBE @AnnMemmott @SwanAutism

Preparing an autism friendly secondary classroom

Photo from Ann Memmott showing what visual hyper-sensitivity can be like in a classroom.

As I promised, here are my tips for secondary teachers getting ready for the next school year.  There are likely to be a number of autistic students or other SEND needs coming into your classes this year and I want to share some of the tips and advice that I would usually pass on to secondary teachers.

Emma, Sarah, Alison and I work with around ten secondary schools and our support looks very different from the work we do with primaries.  The differences in the way a secondary school works brings up additional challenges for the school SENCO and for individual teachers.

Firstly, the movement between lessons, having up to six different teachers each day and the responsibility of being organised, on time for lessons and doing homework are major challenges for autistic / SEND pupils.  On top of that is the minefield of social relationships, especially in Year 7 when children are meeting lots of new children from different feeder primaries and everyone is working out new relationships and friendships.   I’m not going to go into all the challenges and issues in this blog, but give teachers some tips on how they can make their classrooms and lessons autism/SEND friendly and a little bit of advice for a whole school approach that really makes a huge difference.

“Daily Transitions

“I was really scared of the corridors.  All the noise and so many people made my brain scream.  I couldn’t focus on where I was going and so I hid until everyone had gone.  I was always late for lessons.”  Girl with ASC, Year 7.

Once an autistic student has started at a secondary school it is common for them to take longer than most students to be able to settle into the routines of changing rooms between lessons and coping with the different teachers that they meet throughout the day.  Some students will need escorting (by teaching assistant or other students) to each class for some time.  Others may benefit from being allowed to leave each class early to avoid the sensory overload of the corridors and travel to their next class in the quieter corridors.  In Year 7 a buddy system may be set up so that autistic students are not left behind when a class moves on.

Teachers should be aware that it can take some time for the student to adjust to their voice, subject matter and style when they have just come from another teacher who may be very different.  Subject teachers can support this by

  • Having a seating plan and allowing the autistic student to choose where they sit (where they are comfortable, with a friend, can see the main focus of the lesson, get to the door easily).
  • Giving the autistic student time to settle, longer than other students, speaking to them kindly to remind them where they are and which subject they are now doing.
  • Get to know the autistic student, talk to them about their interests and use this as a basis for your relationship.  They will appreciate you for it.”

This is an excerpt from my book “How to Support students with Autism Spectrum Condition in Secondary School” page 23 published by LDA 

The Classroom environment

  1. Each subject teacher will want to make their classroom welcoming and most of all, functional for a classes of different year groups coming into their room each day.   Displays tend to be less of an issue for secondary rooms but clutter can be as much a problem for children who are visually distracted and find it hard to focus as in any classroom.
  2. Have a clear space around your whiteboard.   Enables students to focus solely on the screen / board.   You could put key vocabulary words for the topic on the wall at the side of the whiteboard for those whose attention may wander slightly.  You’d have to change this for each year group but if you have them on Velcro they can be easily changed.
  3. Display visual pictures with key vocabulary.  This helps students remember and understand if they miss or don’t understand verbal information.
  4. Keep class rules simple.   Most rules can be summed up in 2 points:  Be safe.  Be kind.
  5. Have a seating plan and keep to it.  It really is worth allowing autistic/SEND pupils have some say in where they sit.  For example, having to look over the tops of other people’s heads can mean accessing what is on the board more difficult for them.
  6. Suggest disorganised students colour code their timetable with the colour of the subject exercise books.  It might help them bring the right book to your lesson.
  7. It is likely an autistic student or SEND will struggle to have the right equipment.  If that’s going to be likely in your class, have a spare set for them, kept in class and that they can access without making a fuss at the beginning of the lesson.

Accessing lessons

  1. Copying off the board takes a lot of switching attention which can be so difficult for Autistic/SEND students.  Plan to give out printed copies of the text and ask students to highlight key words or important points, it is much more effective.
  2. For those who find writing difficult; find other ways of recording what they know, so they can vary how they record their work.   For example, most computers have speech to text (they can try this for homework first), or typing it on a laptop or even dictating to a recording device.   Diagrams, mind maps, power point, photos and other visual recording can help some pupils.
  3. Remember your autistic students could be the best student you have, they may know as much as you do about your subject and be extremely bright.  But that could mean they are easily bored and don’t get the point of when you need to go over information for other students.
  4. Printing off homework on sticky labels and giving these out means homework is always accurately recorded in their planners.  If you have an online homework system, make sure the autistic/SEND student (and their parents) know how it works and can access it.
  5. A pupil passport is a great way to give every subject teacher the key information about each student; read it and plan the strategies into your whole class teaching.
  6. Use TAs wisely.   The hardest thing is finding time to talk to them but if you can make time you will reap the benefits.   (This is easier when a TA is based in a department,  make sure they are part of departmental meetings).   Have a look at this publication from the Education Endowment Foundation for tips on using TAs better.
  7. Group work is a common complaint from my autistic students,  they hate it!  I suggest subject teachers plan structured paired work to help all students work collaboratively, and build up to group work.   A structure, with well-defined roles works best.  See our blog on group work. 


  1. Set up an email link with parents.   Some secondaries have good parent communication systems in place, others have yet to get there.   But as a subject leader try to communicate directly with parents about their child in the first half term.   They will want to know how they are settling in.  You could send a postcard.  Ask them if there is anything they can share that will help you teach their child in your subject.  It maybe having a spare PE kit in school will be vital for them actually having PE kit.  It may be that you need to email the ingredients for cooking directly to the parents to ensure that the student will have what they need.  English teachers might use a book they really like.
  2. Pass on any information (especially good things) to the SENCO or pastoral leader whoever is the person who might speak to parents the most.   Having up to date information to hand will make their job much easier.
  3. Talk to other subject teachers and the SENCO before you contact parents about a behaviour or other problem.   It will be important to know if there is a similar problem in other subjects and if there are any particular links.   For example, it could be a break time issue that impacts on your lesson just after break and other subjects find the same on the other days.


  1. School is often overwhelming for autistic/SEND students.  Be aware of sensory sensitivities and needs.   The student may need a break occasionally.   A time-out card can help them do this without fuss.  They can be taught how to use this to calm down and return to the class.
  2. Low level disruptions are often attempts to communicate.   Students who find it hard to follow or join in conversation often act loudly or silly because that gets feedback and acceptance from their peers.   Structured paired work and teaching conversation / public speaking skills can help the whole class.
  3. Other low level disruption occurs when a student doesn’t understand what they have to do or feel they can’t do it.  They might be unable to ask for help, or try to distract you from asking them what they have done.  Don’t just explain using the same words – a task may need breaking into smaller chunks and explaining more clearly.
  4. Be aware of those who find being the centre of attention too much to cope with.  Give them chance to answer questions through writing answers down on a whiteboard, talk to them individually and don’t point out anything they are doing in front of the whole class.
  5. Talk to your autistic/ SEND students about what they are interested in.   Especially if they have a topic they like to talk about a lot.   They will really appreciate you taking a few minutes every now and again to chat to them about it.   Get to know them and what makes them tick.   All children work well for the teachers they know like them.
  6. Students with autism can be very honest.   I was once told I stank because I’d put perfume on that day.   Don’t take anything personally.   If they are shouting obscenities at you they are VERY stressed and you should use your skill to help them not get into verbal combat with them.
  7. Know who you can call for help.   Prevention is better than reaction but if you are in a position where the student can’t cope with your lesson and has become angry or upset, know what the plan is and follow it carefully.   It works best when every teacher has a visual card with the plan on it that they can show the student and so reduce verbal language which causes more stress.
  8. Have high expectations of behaviour,  but know that autistic / SEND students often need support to achieve those standards.   Writing a clear explanation down of what you want, rather than telling off for what they are doing wrong works much better than lots of nagging.  Believe me!


There’s lots and lots of other advice I could give but not much space in this blog.   Here is the link to the ten top tips sheet that can be printed and given to secondary teachers. .  In my Secondary book I have put a lot more about transitions, accessing the curriculum (more subject specific information), behaviour support, social support, puberty and SRE as well as exam support.   It is aimed at non-autism-specialist teachers but SENCOs will find it really useful too.  It’s a handbook to dip in and out of.  (Get the sticky tabs ready.)   Hope you might think of buying it! 

Emotion Works _ What is it and how can I use it in my classroom/setting?

Emotion Works was developed by Claire Murray in Edinburgh and about 4 years ago I came across it on the internet.  The first thing that caught my eye was the visual cogs.  Thinking that this would be good for the pupils with autism that we support at Reachout ASC,  we jumped on a train and attended a training day in Glasgow.

We ‘got it’ straight away.  We were working to develop the emotional literacy and problem solving skills of our pupils and here was a resource that would enable us to do this better.  We liked it because it was visual and structured.  It broke down all the issues around emotions into manageable components and this gave us the chance to use it flexibly with pupils of all different ages and abilities.  The pack and licence gave us everything we needed to get us started and we still find there is everything we need in that.  The extras that Claire has developed are great too.

You can watch a short film ‘All about Emotion Works’ over on their website here Our Story – Emotion Works

At the heart of the Emotion Works Approach is a simple and versatile visual resource called ‘The Component Model of Emotion’.  This colour-coded model identifies seven aspects of emotional knowledge and competence that work together to show how ’emotion works’.

Early Years and Primary Pupils

In Primary School there are many opportunities to develop emotional literacy.  I can see how a class teacher could use this in many lessons to explore characters in stories, poetry and topic work such as motives of key players in history.  It would be good to develop many aspects of PSHE and RE.  The literacy aspect works well to develop good writing and speaking.  Children learn to develop their own understanding of what makes them work and how events, emotions, thoughts and behaviours work together. There are some fabulous examples of whole class learning on her website. You can find out more about their Literacy Programme and stimuli idea on their padlets here Emotion Works Literacy Padlets

For us as autism specialist teachers, we often work with individuals or 1:1 with pupils. We use Emotion Works as a teaching tool to develop emotional literacy. This involves introducing emotion words (using the visual symbols that come with the pack) and helping the child identify events and ‘triggers’ that prompt these emotions.  With some pupils with autism, this helps their memory and recall as well as connecting events to emotions.  With other children we use Emotion Works to help with problem solving.  We might start by identifying a problem, a situation or an emotion they are struggling with, and then work with a 4, 5 or 6 part model (depending on the child) to work out what the problem is about.  We can work out what things are connected to the problem and then concentrate on the blue cog in trying to work out what the solution or support needed could be.  This blue cog is our favouritie…”What makes me feel better?” is a good question to ask.  What we love is that all this involves the child.   They are listened to, they offer their own viewpoint and they are involved in choosing the strategies for change.  There are plenty of visual resources in the Emotion Works pack to support those with poorer verbal language and the whole structure helps pupils with autism be able to process each part at a time and then see it together as a whole.   Here is an example of one exploring the character of the troll and the Billy goat from Claire’s website.

Secondary Pupils.

To be honest, we actually use Emotion Works more with secondary age pupils than with primary.  That is mainly because we are not class teachers (if I was I’d be using it in many different lessons, as above).  We have found that pupils with autism who have made it to secondary school are coping with many more stressful situations and problems that they ever had to at primary school.  We are fortunate to work regularly with individuals (from weekly to monthly) and have time to work through issues, problems, challenges and emotions with them.  We have used Emotion Works in group work and with individuals and the reason I am writing this post and inviting Claire Murray down to Lancashire to launch Emotion Works here, is because the response we get from nearly every pupil is amazing.  Considering the difficulties pupils with autism often have in communicating and understanding different aspects of an event or emotion, we have seen that the respond to the visual structure of Emotion Works really well and the things they have been able to tell us wouldn’t have happened without this support.  We develop a lot of the ideas into a bigger visual map (such as the one about sleep, below) and the two are then permanent visual supports for the pupil , their teachers and parents to remind them of what we have discussed and what they might like to do about it.

I think I need to give you some examples.

Preparing for a new situation

From moving up to Year 10 when the curriculum changes and GCSE pressure kicks in, to going on a school trip or being invited to a party, Emotion Works has enabled us to explore with the pupil how this might be making them feel, what effect that is having on them, and what they could do to manage the emotion and situation better.  It can lead to a plan being made to help them deal with the new experience or a change in the way they are supported to enable more suitable support (for example changing from a TA in the classroom to a mentor type role to deal with the homework for GCSE).  Mostly, it helps the SENCO, parent and teachers understand what the pupil really is dealing with rather than them assuming they know!

Understanding anxiety and anger

Anger and anxiety are big emotions.  Having autism can make these bigger and more constant than for other pupils and understanding the role puberty can take in having these emotions is also important.  Each pupil has very individual triggers and reactions to these emotions and it has been amazing to be able to explore these with them.  It has worked as a small group (such as in the part example about anxiety with a group of girls with Asperger’s and the example about anger with a group of boys with ASD below).  We have found the grey cog (intensity) particularly useful and sometimes link this to the “Five Point Scale” so that we can explore how they could recognise the earlier stages of the emotion and find regulation strategies.  The purple cog (influences) was particularly good to explore next, as peer pressure and self esteem were other themes that came out of our discussion.

Part of our exploring anxiety with a group of girls with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Part of our exploring anger with a group of boys with ASD.
Working out how a Y10 pupil might sleep better (their request)

Restorative Practice

It happens occasionally that we arrive in school and there has been ‘an incident’.  We sometimes find that exploring what happened, the triggers and the emotions can really help a pupil and their teachers understand the whole story.  It often identifies where the key trigger was and helps us ask the pupil how we could restore relationships or order in a fair way.  Mostly the pupil responds well because they feel they have been listened to, even if they might have been in the wrong.  If someone else was in the wrong, or perceived to be, we can then work with the school and pupil to put things right.  On more than one occasion it has helped us identify the early stages of bullying and deal with that.  It has also helped us work with friends falling out and restore the friendship!

Teaching emotional literacy

We like all our pupils to develop emotional literacy at a level they can understand.  This is an important aspect of our support for their mental health and wellbeing.  Professor Tony Attwood says that most people with Asperger’s (and autism) don’t understand what ‘CALM’ actually is as they live with so much anxiety constantly in their lives.  We have addressed this in all our work with children and young people from the early years to young adults in giving them the chance to explore what calm means and what other emotions drive their thoughts and behaviours.  With many of our pupils we can do this using Emotion Works as our base and then concentrating on the blue cog, “What makes us feel better?”  It is from this we use a variety of other resources to explore what actually does.  It can be anxiety management, social stories, exercise and sports, sensory diets, jokes, special interests, developing friendships and other supportive relationships, ways to feel comfortable in social inclusion, learning about something new or a mixture of all these things.

The Acrylic Set of Cogs were made for us by a college DT department.

Parents and other professionals

I think this resource could really be used by parents and I can see lots of possibilities for families of children with ASC to develop emotional communication.  Starting young, one or two of the cogs can be explored and more introduced as the child gets older or more able to develop those concepts.  Teenagers may not want to talk to their parents but this may give a framework for communication in the teenage years with a no-blame and listening approach.  I’d use it to teach about drugs, alcohol and sexual attraction, consent and other big relationship and life issues.

Professional from CAMHS, hospitals and many others could use this model to explore emotional and physical difficulties.  I like the idea of doctors using this to explore what might be wrong when a person with autism is sick and show them clearly what could make them feel better.

Training enquiries email:

Preparing an autism friendly primary classroom.

Photo from Ann Memmott showing what visual hyper-sensitivity can be like in a classroom.

“The classroom is each teacher’s mini-kingdom and the ‘home’ of your pupils for most of the school day.  Teachers lavish care and attention on how it is set out and how they decorate it, and spend time organising furniture and equipment that they and their pupils will need to access throughout the year. In primary classrooms, hours are spent printing and laminating and setting out displays, and carefully choosing words, pictures and prompts for pupils’ writing, maths and topic work.   Coat pegs and drawers are labelled, boxes and books are given out and groups of tables are given a name.  In the Early Years, parts of the room are often sectioned off into creative, ‘small world’ or sensory play areas and most classrooms have a common focus area, usually in front of the whiteboard, where pupils will gather to listen to the teacher presenting a lesson.   At the beginning of the school year, the classroom is bright, stimulating, labelled, and ready for a new intake of pupils.” 

Lynn McCann (2017) page 21

Now imagine you are in a busy foreign railway station.  You know you have to get somewhere but you’re not quite sure how to read the strange symbols that indicate the destination on your ticket.  The signs are in a script that you don’t recognise, the trains are loud, noisy and smell strongly of diesel.  The buzzing crowd is pushing and jostling you in a direction you’re not even sure you want to go.  Some people come towards you making attempts to grab your bag, and you feel scared and threatened.  Other people gesticulate with signs and mouth strange words, but you don’t understand and they soon go away.  You spot what looks like an official and make your way to them, but they are just shouting random words in a language you don’t understand through a megaphone. Your head hurts, you are sick with anxiety and frustration and you have no idea how to cope.

School can feel like this for pupils with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC).”

Lynn McCann (2017) page 21

This is an excerpt from my book “How to support Children with ASC in Primary School” and there’s lots of advice and information about how to do just that in there.You can find it on LDA Learning Publishers website if you’re interested.

But in this blog I’m going to share some advice about how to get ready for an autistic child who might be coming into your class this September, starting with some key tips that can make a classroom autism friendly and yet suitable for all children. Then I will give you some tips on how to make yourself ready.


  1. Have a visual timetable and use it.  Here you can read about why this can help children learn independence.
  2. Have clear spaces between display boards and keep displays simple.
  3. Leave clear space around whiteboards.  Less chance of being distracted.
  4. Make sure where child is to sit is accessible for them, without having to navigate obstacles or pass lots of other children closely.
  5. Check light levels, noise from other rooms, smells and cut down on things hanging from the ceiling.
  6. It’s always best to start minimalist and let the child tell you what they can cope with on top of that.  As they settle in you can involve the autistic child in what could go on the walls.
  7. Use table top vocabulary/maths reminders rather than word or number walls.  Then you just get them out as needed and they are not there all the time.
  8. Keep clutter on top of cupboards and tables to the minimum.


  1. Make a booklet reminding the pupil about their new classroom, with a picture of the class staff and an outline of what will happen on the first day back.  Send it to the child’s home with a welcome note.
  2. Read the notes from the last teacher and highlight all the positive things about the child.   Have a box of toys, magazines etc of their favourite things ready for them on the first day.
  3. Know their sensory profile.  If they use headphones, have a storage place for them near their seat.   If they have a wobble cushion, make sure it is ready for them on the first day back.
  4. Have whatever visuals they used in the last class, ready for them to use again (or a similar set if they need renewing).  This is not the time to say they don’t need them anymore.


  1. Make plans to support the child and their peers to be able to interact well with them.  This could be by setting up a games group, buddy system for playtimes or supporting partner work in class.
  2. Support the children to access classroom routines by having visual supports such as a schedule, or writing a ‘story’ for them about how things work in your classroom.  Pictures and written instructions are easier to refer to and remember than verbal instructions. Make them positive and encouraging.
  3. Plan how the autistic child might access class lessons.  They may need a whiteboard, visuals, a copy of the story book for themselves, a fiddle toy or a TA supporting them.  Spend time with the TA beforehand to plan how this might work.
  4. Plan to teach the child yourself.  Timetable this in, so that you are their teacher, not the TA.  Be a team where you both know the child well.


  1. Find out the first names of the parents.
  2. Arrange a date to meet and listen to their story as soon as you are able to in the first couple of weeks.  Just listen and get to know what their hopes for their child are.  They will have some really helpful tips and information for you to support their child. 
  3. Suggest a way to keep in touch regularly with them.  A home-school diary works well.


  1. Don’t feel overwhelmed by what you might not know.  Ask for advice/help earlier rather than later.
  2. Plan time to plan regularly with your TA.
  3. Get to know the professional working with the child and make friends with them.  They might do a lot extra for you (we do!)
  4. Read about autism by all means but don’t assume the child in your class will be just like the children you read about.  Get to know them and their strengths as well as understand their frustrations.
  5. Be positive and calm in all circumstances.  It is a child and behaviour is communication.  That can help you ‘read’ what they are trying to tell you.

There is so much more I could tell you but then this blog would be too long.  Please do look at my other blogs if you want to know more, and of course, as I’ve written the thing,  I’d love you to buy my book as there’s loads of helpful stuff in there.  

Enjoy your class this year. 

Next time getting ready to teach children with autism for a secondary teacher. 

prepare visual resources that are familiar to the child.

What is a sensory diet and how do I implement one in my busy classroom?

Image from: Supporting Autistic Learners course by Lynn McCann

Many autistic children have Sensory Processing Disorders. (And so do children with Down’s Syndrome, ADHD and other or no other conditions). Their sensory systems (as above) can be hyper (over) or hypo (under) sensitive and this affects the way that they understand, perceive and interact with the world around them.  It also affects their perception of their own bodies and how they function.  And I’m often asked whether the sensory responses can be different on different days,  yes, they can.  Some sensory responses can be hyper and some hypo in the same person.

Knowing each child’s profile has to be important in order that we can support them and help them understand how to manage their sensory difficulties.   These difficulties won’t magically disappear, but what we can do is help a child understand their sensory systems and how they and others can help ‘regulate’ the sensory input so that they can feel calm, alert and manage the stress that it causes.

Sensory Assessments

A sensory assessment should be done by a Sensory-trained Occupational Therapist.   If you can get an assessment on the NHS then, congratulations!   In many areas, these are as rare as Hen’s teeth.   Some CAMHS services do sensory assessments and may have OT input for this and that is great too.  Many parents find they have to pay privately for an assessment and there are some excellent OT Sensory Therapists out there.  Sometimes assessments are done by people who are not OTs.   These might give general guidelines and would certainly not be linked to any specific therapy,  but more to environmental accommodations and practical activities at home and school.

For you as a teacher, you may notice that your pupil has sensory avoiding or sensory seeking behaviours.  You might have been asked to fill in a questionnaire and you might have had an OT visit your school to observe the child.  You might not have noticed anything at school because some children mask their difficulties and the meltdown happens at home.  You’ve probably had conversations about sensory processing concerns with parents.

But it is likely that after an assessment you will receive a copy of a report.  This report should identify the child’s “Sensory Profile” (their sensory differences and difficulties) and will include a list of suggestions for you to implement in the school day.  Often these will start with environmental adaptations.  These might be to sit the child in a certain place, make the classroom less overwhelming for the child and add things like a sensory area to your classroom. There will be suggestions for activities,  and these lists can be very long!


And therein lies the problem.  Some sensory profile reports I have seen have been long, detailed and overwhelming for teachers and teaching assistants (there are some wonderful exceptions with reports that are so easy to work with). The question is always; ‘how do we do all this in our busy classroom and where do we start?”

This is what you can do…

Think of it like this.  A sensory diet is like when we eat meals.  We have a main meal three times a day, and in between we have snacks.  At school, there is one of those main meals and times for snacks between.  Sensory activities can be organised, available and monitored with this in mind.

A Sensory Diet

A. The Sensory main meal is a main activity that helps the child regulate their sensory systems so that they feel calm and alert enough to engage with the rest of the school day demands.  This could be activities like:  (these are examples, there are tons of ideas that might be suggested).

  • a break somewhere quiet
  • a walk around the schools grounds
  • some oral-motor activities
  • physical activities such as a sensory circuit
  • time wearing a weighted jacket

This may mean that a teaching assistant takes the child out of class for anything between 5 minutes and 1/2 hour whilst the activity takes place.  The aim is for the child to have the sensory input or sensory break their system needs so that they have the energy, focus and calmness to continue with the demands of the day.

B. Sensory snacks can happen through the day and should be available or the child to use at any time.  These can be –  (again, just a few examples)

  • headphones to shut out noise overload
  • fiddle toys
  • knobbly cushions on their chair
  • “Chewelry” and oral motor toys
  • calming smells
  • weighted cushions

(I’d include fidget spinners but they’re mostly banned!! – there are alternatives!)

When choosing what activities to put in place then look at the list you have been given in the report.  Speak to parents and the child to gather which activities might already be familiar and working well with the child.   Then choose one or two at a time and experiment to see what helps the child and what doesn’t.  If it doesn’t, cross it off the list and use another of the ideas.  Involve the child and get them to say what they’d like to try (give visual choice boards if needed) and have the child comment on whether the activity makes them feel okay, better and able to join in class learning activities.  Try and record what works and what response the child gives so you have evidence for any follow up or review.


Widgit symbols (C)

​If you timetable the ‘main meals’ in to the child’s visual timetable (see picture) then the child knows it is happening and can build that into their expectations of the day.  I have known children who can wait more patiently because they know when the activity is coming.  They also need to know that it’s okay to have their ‘snack’ activities WHENEVER they need it.  If a child is struggling with noise, then telling them to wait for their headphones isn’t going to help them.  They will need to know it is okay to use them whenever they need them.    Don’t be worried that some children might use these activities to ‘opt out’ regularly.   If the sensory diet is doing its job, then they will feel calmer more often and naturally will join in learning activities.   At first it is usual that children use their ‘snack’ activities often.  That is good.

The aim of all sensory diets is to help the child learn to “self-regulate”.  They should be taught about their sensory systems and how the environment and maybe other people (noise, touch etc) does upset their sensory systems, and that it isn’t their fault.  We need to help children know what helps them feel safe, calm and able to engage with the environment, learning activities, and with people.  This takes a long-term approach.  They are likely to need support throughout their school lives.   As a class teacher you are not expected to be an Occupational Therapist.  That’s okay.  These tips are here to help you implement the advice of a sensory assessment in ways that you as a teacher can organise and manage.

Here are some further reading resources that you might find helpful.

Chapter 6 of my book “How to support children with Autism Spectrum Condition in primary school. (LDA)

The Out of Sync Child by Carol Stock-Kranowictz

How to support children with sensory processing needs by Lois Addy (LDA)

And to explain sensory processing to children this book is excellent:

Max and Me by Ines Lawlor

Why I’m changing my language about Autism

Over the years I have been working with autistic children, I have been listening to and learning from the children themselves and also from autistic adults who I’ve got to know along the way.  So many autistic adults have become my friends in person, and others are those I follow and interact with on social media.  The debate about what language we use has been going on for some time.  I started out as choosing “autism spectrum condition” as the word ‘disorder’ never seemed respectful to autistic people.   I also used to write ‘with autism’, and again, trying to be respectful at the time.  But now I  have been challenged to change my language as I listen and learn. 

The problem with ‘having autism’ or ‘person with autism’ is that it separates a person from autism and can easily lead to the autism as being something seen as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.  There are whole charities and industries based on autism being ‘wrong’ and some of the treatments and so called cures are inhumane.  Anyone heard of forcing autistic children to drink bleach?  Then there are those like the charity Autism Speaks, which spends the majority of its funding on finding a cure for autism. That’s why many autistic people don’t like their ‘Light it up Blue’ campaignin April as its supporting the fact that they are the ‘wrong’ type of people. Autism is not a burden, a disease or a curse.

In education, it is the fashion to talk in person-first language.   We say ‘a child with dyslexia’, ‘a child with ADHD’, ‘a child with Down’s Syndrome’ or ‘a child with autism’.   On the face of it, it may seem we are being respectful.   I am sure most teachers only want to reinforce that we put children first, that we want to see the whole child and not just their label.   I have gone along with this for some time too.  Whilst this is right, what we are doing is possibly not having the desired effect.  Particularly in autism, ADHD and Down’s Syndrome.  Autism is what a child is.  Down’s Syndrome is what a child is.  ADHD is what a child is.  We have different ways that our brains work and all have strengths and weaknesses, just as neurotypical children have.

When I have met parents who want schools to use person-first language, it has been because the professionals have not really understood their child and used the label to make sweeping assumptions leading to misconceptions and far too low expectations.    Seeing the child as a label is just as wrong as not seeing them for who they are in that label.   It’s so tricky.

Part of the solution will always be better training and understanding for teachers.  In their defence the SEND training many of them get is woefully inadequate and it rarely becomes a priority for schools once they are in their jobs.   So, we have teachers who want to help, but don’t know how, who are given bits of advice but little support, trying to implement support for the child without consistency or success.   In my experience, when those supports are in place,  the teachers do a great job.    Some will seek out their own training and research but so many are already under so much pressure to do so many other things. They ask for training or support and it doesn’t happen in time to help that child.

Children who need support are not ‘wrong’. We should instead see the wonderful diversity and potential of autistic people. Yes, some have so many difficulties to overcome and these are only some of the reasons:

  • It could be that the promised support isn’t being delivered or is not being allocated in the first place (sometimes this is because of LAs refusing to do an assessment).
  • It could be because others don’t understand how they are communicating,
  • It could be because the environment is sensory overwhelming or the demands and pace of the school day is too fast and complicated.
  • It could be that their peers don’t understand them and so leave them out or bully them.
  • It could be that teachers talk too much or expect them to understand their ambiguous language.
  • It could just be that the pace and content of our curriculum is made inaccessible for the autistic child and the pressure on the teacher to get through the curriculum leaves them no time to breathe, never mind the children!
  • It could be that their abilities are not being recognised because everyone is focussing on difficulties and not giving them the right opportunities. 
  • It could be that they are seemingly doing okay but trying to cope with anxieties and difficulties that they are trying to hide. 

I can understand why some people use person-first language but from now on, I am going to use ‘autistic’ to describe the people I work with, am friends with and seek to support because that is mostly their preferred term. I like it because it celebrates the diversity and value of people for who they are,  not what someone else or society or the education is trying to make them be.  I want to thank autistic friends for their education and campaigning on this.

There is also the issue of ‘disorder’ versus ‘condition’.   Our service choose ‘condition’ over disorder because we thought it was more respectful.   Disorder seems to be borrowed heavily from American language where to get support in education and social services through the private medical insurance schemes, a person needs to be diagnosed with a ‘disorder’.   Definitely this is a medical model that makes me very uncomfortable. I am not totally happy with the term ‘condition’ as I reflect on this more and more, so maybe I will have to reconsider our name in the near future.

Of course, wouldn’t it be just best if we didn’t need to label people at all and be able to have the diversity in our education system to allow for the diversity of children that actually exist, (and always have done.)   I will continue to ask each individual what term, if any, they would prefer and explore their lives and identity with them in the driving seat (or leading the way).   There are so many more issues about identity, I am aware, but that’s another post.

I know people who are deaf who want to be known as a deaf person and those who want to be known as a person with hearing impairment.  I know people with autism who aren’t at all bothered which term is used as long as it is said with respect and those who want to be known as autistic.  Respect is the key. In the end – we are all part of the wonderful diversity of humanness.

And finally, I am sorry to anyone who has been offended by any term or phrase I have used in the past. Please forgive me.  I hope we are all learning together for a better future for autistic people. I’ve already changed the terms I use in my training and work in schools. I’m happy to chat to anyone that I meet about this.  Maybe we’ll have tea and cake 🙂

Please respect others in any comments that you are welcome to make.

*My books for LDA are titled ‘How to support children with Autism Spectrum Condition in Primary School’ and ‘How to support students with Autism Spectrum Condition in Secondary school’. These are following the agreed educational language of the date and the alternative term of ‘autistic’ is described at the beginning of the book. This is by no means meant to be separating the diagnosis from the person and throughout the books the focus is on understanding the individual person and how best to support them in schools with practical strategies that have been tried and tested in our practice.

What makes transition work for Autistic pupils?

image from

Autistic pupils can find everyday transitions difficult, as well as the major transitions that happen. The reasons can include:

  • Not being told what the change will involve,
  • What will be expected of them,
  • How long it’s going to last,
  • Perceived or real sensory challenges,
  • Not being given time enough to process the changes or enough information to do so
  • Being so engrossed and comfortable in what they are doing that they cannot seem to switch attention and move to somewhere else,

Transitions can cause a lot of anxiety.

If you’re involved in supporting children with every day transitions and often a visual timetable used correctly (see my blog post here) can help enormously and give the pupil some interaction and choices when appropriate. Giving them time to process and information about what to expect is important.  An example is a child who hated lining up because he didn’t know where he was going.  He did everything he can to avoid lining up, such as hitting others in the hope he’d be made to stay behind.  For him, we worked with him to ask “Where are we going?”;  So he didn’t have to rely on an adult telling him and he felt less anxious and more in control.

But what about the major transition of moving to the next class or from Primary to Secondary School…

When it goes well.

Transitions to a new class in the same school

The big transitions happen in September as the child moves to a new class in Primary or a new school as in starting secondary school.  For class to class transition, all the following principles apply, and I think it’s really important to help the child see what will be the SAME as well as different.  It’s how our brains cope with change.  We make connections with what is familiar to us, drawing on our past experiences and looking for connections.  We need to support autistic pupils in the same way.  I have written a social story booklet you can use here

Transition to secondary school

I’m pleased to see that many secondary schools are getting better at transition, particularly for their SEND pupils.  I say some, because others have not been so good.  I’ll come to that later.  When it works well, transition:

  • Starts as early as year 4.  Parents and the school should start to have the conversation of what is the next step for the child.  Parents need time to emotionally process the fact that their child is going to be making a major move. They will feel nervous too.  Starting early means they have time to look around, do the research and be ready for a more formal transition meeting in Y5.
  • A transition plan is put in place.  Some good resources for this can be found –  I love the resources below, do take a look.   They are really helpful in supporting parents and schools to work together.  Often the secondary school won’t get involved until the child has been offered a definite place.  DON’T PANIC.  There is still plenty of time for them to do a good transition.
  • The autistic pupil is helped to prepare, gently, positively and with the right support for them.  I often start with a timeline at the start of Y6.  This plots out the whole year and key events, including secondary applications, notifications of places, holidays, trips, open evenings and trips to secondary schools and so on.  We use different coloured pens and are able to add other things that come up.  This works better than a calendar for most, as they can see the whole year and how much time is between each event.
  • The pupil is familiar with their new class / school before they make the move.  This should take as many visits as the child needs, at different times.  For example, the first visit during lesson time when all the classes are in their rooms and the corridors are quiet.  Extra visits might be made to familiarise the pupil with the dining hall, where the lockers and toilets are and where they can go for help, or quiet places to go at break times.
  • The pupil has had the chance to meet key people who will be there to support them on their first day.   Photos may be taken to remind them over the summer holidays.
  • The pupil has someone they can discuss their worries and fears with.  They have the opportunity to chat in a group with peers/friends so that they all know they have similar challenges ahead and so that they can help each other with suggestions.
  • Relevant and up-to-date paper work has been prepared and passed on to the SENCO of the receiving school.  This does not always happen.
  • The Primary school begin to help the pupil learn to work with other adults, especially if they’ve had a long term TA, it is unusual and probably not possible for a pupil to have the same 1:1 all the time at secondary school.
  • The pupil has some input and contribution to their transition.  This may include choosing dates and activities to do on visits, taking their own photos or video around the new school, choosing their new school bag, preparing a place to do home work.(Advice for pupils who are struggling with anxiety or unable to do homework)
  • Parents feel informed, reassured and that they know who to contact when issues or questions arise.
  • The receiving teachers/school has had or is planning Autism training so that staff understand the spectrum and range of strengths and support needs in autism and how to help the pupil(s) that they are welcoming into their school or class.   You can start with my Ten Top Tips for Secondary teachers.

Schools who do good and successful transitions are flexible, involve the children and reassure parents.  One school I work with has a very successful summer school that has help numerous Autistic and SEND pupils to settle in well once they start Y7.  This school also has a dedicated Y7 support teacher, who doesn’t teach and works with all the pupils to deal with issues as soon as they come up right throughout their first year of secondary school.

When it goes badly.

Sometimes the move to a new class or school goes wrong for the child.  Often ending in permanent exclusion or at best, a lot of hard work to claw back the progress that should have been made.  Sometimes this is the time a specialist teacher is called for,  it’s not a good point to start.  We would much rather help at the actual transition stage and avoid some of these mistakes.  In the end, it can destroy a child’s confidence, their education chances and mental health.    Having had to pick up the pieces of failed transitions in the past, it’s always the child who suffers most.  I do a lot of work with our county’s Primary and Secondary PRUs. The PRUs I work with will agree with me. They are getting more and more autistic pupils who have been excluded from mainstream schools and many could have been supported better.

Bad transitions happen when:

  • No one bothers to put a plan in place.
  • The pupil is not given any preparation that is suitable for them.
  • Parents are not consulted and there is poor communication between the schools and home.
  • The pupil is ‘forced’ to move through exclusion or a hurriedly ‘managed move’.
  • Communication between schools is poor or non-existent.
  • Paperwork is not passed on so receiving school know nothing about the child’s needs.
  • A ‘no-excuses’ approach to behaviour is rigidly enforced from day 1 and child learns to fail straight away without any support to achieve good behaviour.
  • Staff don’t have any Autism training and think the pupils are ‘doing it on purpose’ (whatever ‘it’ may be).
  • Staff think that ‘kids like that’ shouldn’t be in their school.

I hate having to write this part.  Thankfully we work with some fantastic schools who get transition right.  It’s the stories we hear from other sources and when children have come to them on ‘managed moves’ or without the right support that we have realised that these things actually happen.  Parents then have a fight to help their son or daughter settle into a secondary school that doesn’t seem to want them.

If you are a parent, SENCO or teacher starting to think about a move to secondary school, or even to the next class then here are some great resources.  Good planning and preparation that involves the pupil will pay off generously in years to come.

This is our free course with advice for schools, parents and pupils on transition which was produced in lockdown but has lots of still relevant advice. 

National Autistic Society advice on transition

And here is our free booklet that can be filled in about going to secondary school 

Front page of transition to secondary school booklet


8 ways to help Autistic pupils manage anxiety

I was born worrying, so my mum said.  I don’t really know what it is like not to have a million worries running through my head all at once.  Every conceivable disaster is imagined once my brain focusses on a particular thought – There’s a downside to having a wild imagination.

But over the years I have learned a lot about anxiety and have many strategies that work for me in coping with it.  I can manage it.  I can recognise when it comes, what it is and fight it off.   Sometimes it goes quietly, sometimes I’m exhausted after the battle.   But I usually win these days.  Anxiety doesn’t control me like it used to.

There’s an upside to having a wild imagination too.  I can write stories and get really involved in a fantasy world in books and films.  I love craft and sewing.   And I can empathise when others tell me they are anxious all the time too. Anxiety’s energy can be harnessed for good.

When I work with children and young people who are autistic, they often seem anxious and many will tell me that they are…

I do a lot of 1:1 and small group work with children and teenagers and whenever I bring up the topic of emotions, anxiety is what they all feel, often all the time.

When anxiety is there all the time, your brain is connected to the stress hormones and adrenalin that it creates. It is easy to develop an ‘I’m either high or low’ persona and crave the extremes of emotion because you don’t know how to ‘be’ without it.

You can also access our new Autism and Anxiety Course with Schudio TV for just £20.

Tony Attwood said that people with Asperger’s don’t know what ‘calm’ is (at a conference I was attending). This is what the children I work with tell me. It makes us telling them to ‘calm down’ useless. How can they do something they don’t recognise?

This is some of the support we use and I hope by sharing them,  you might find something to help your anxious autistic child.

1. One

Make sure first and foremost that it isn’t something that you are doing or others are that is causing the anxiety. This includes poor support, poor communication and not recognising their autism needs. It includes looking out for bullying and social isolation. Anxiety is not always the child’s issue but can be the result of other’s poor understanding and support.   It can be hard to accept that we are talking too much, nagging, dismissing the anxiety (“Don’t worry about that” etc) or causing sensory anxiety.  But it really is okay.  Son’t be hard on yourself but examine what you and others do, the autistic child, young person or adult’s responses and work to reduce the demands that cause anxiety from yourself, others and the environment.

2. Two

Check out their sensory sensitivities.This is the first port of call for me as sensory issues can be the source of most of an autistic person’s anxiety. Then you can help them find ways to manage the sensory overload or under-responsiveness, change the environmental factors that are contributing and introduce sensory activities.  Remember it can take time for an autistic child, young person or adult to recognise their own sensory differences and process the sensory information coming into their brains.  Some may be highly sensitive and anxious about going anywhere in case their senses may be assaulted, or not knowing what the sensory demands are causes anxiety. Others may take days or weeks to register the sensory demands and have a delayed reaction.  And some may need extra sensory input to be able to process their environment and the demands that are put on them.  It is so important to understand, support and work with the sensory needs of autistic people.

3. Three

I always explain and teach the child about their sensory systems and about self-regulation. A really good book I use as a reference is “Max and Me”. It is written with primary examples but I have used the story theme to talk to secondary pupils really successfully.  Mostly they will learn from experience and supportive people who understand and explain things to them.  It takes a long time to learn to recognise and self-regulate. We mustn’t expect the child to be in control of their emotions, but teach them how emotions affect us and explore what they are like inside, the physical responses as well as the thoughts and feelings.  “The incredible 5 point Scale” is a good visual resource for some autistic children and young people.  There is something else that they should be taught too, that we can seek out trusted others to help us regulate (feel better).

4. Four
I have been using Emotion Works (see my blog about this here) to get the pupils identifying and noticing that they are anxious and where or what triggers it. The visuals and components of emotions in the cogs are brilliant and I have used these with primary and secondary children,  just adjust the communication accordingly. We use symbols that come with the pack, pictures and talk, depending on the child’s communication strengths. It has been good to look at other emotion words that go with anxiety so that we can explore a greater range of situations and give words to the feelings they have. But the essence is this – we often only look at the behaviour and try to figure out what the trigger was.  We can work out the child is anxious, but it is really helpful to connect these elements  trigger = body sensations = intensity = behaviour.  From this we can look at what could make them feel better by addressing the body sensations and intensity rather than just the trigger.

5. Five
Naming an emotion helps. Recognising that this feeling is anxiety, worry, frustration and what the difference is does take time. Some autistic people have a difficult time recognising emotions. We just take it at the child’s pace. We might work with just 2-3 words or (in one particular child) 20-30 words.  Start to build your own word list of emotions and we find it useful to work with the 5 point scale.  We also use visuals from and group emotion words into sad, happy, angry and worried columns.  We make sure that at the start of the scale is one of the words – calm, okay or fine as our baseline.  Because, let’s be honest, we are not usually just happy or sad. You can help by making talking about emotions part of your everyday like and have a commentary on your emotions.  Simply say things like “I’m tired and it’s making me a bit grumpy.  I’m going to have a rest to make me feel better.”  See below for a way we have put a word list together with some of our pupils.  This took a long time, we didn’t rush it and let the pupils contribute at every point. We did work about what each work meant and felt like to each person.  With younger children it can take years to get to that point.

6. Six
Introduce positive emotion words. Living with anxiety 24/7 often means that the person doesn’t really focus on positive emotions and times that they might be happy or content are rare. Anxiety can be in the background all the time and so to bring positive emotions to the fore needs some training. Mindfulness techniques are really useful but make sure they make sense to the person and aren’t too abstract.

7. Seven
Teach the science of anxiety. My pupils love this booklet from GoZen. I use it with mainstream pupils, sometimes upper KS2 but mainly in secondary. It’s there to help the children understand what worry/anxiety is and how it affects us physically and our responses.

8. Eight
The last part is generally the longest and hardest. Finding ways that help us manage anxiety and change it into ‘calm’ or just ‘okay’ is okay. There are lots of things to try on the GoZen site but I know this is an individual pursuit. Coming alongside the child and trying things out, maybe recording what experiences help them feel better does take time. Often autistic children will use escapism to hide away from the anxious feelings. This is often in video games, books or You Tube videos. (which can be really helpful too.)  I try to help them find things that don’t just stop the anxiety being at the front of their mind for a while (because if that is your only strategy then there is a higher risk of turning to drugs, alcohol and other substances to mask the feelings later in their lives). Tony Attwood again, recommends ‘fixing the feeling’ by putting together a toolkit of strategies that work for them. I put together a booklet with the following headings and together we explore what tools the pupil has.

  • Physical Activity tools (Quick release of emotional energy)
  • Relaxation tools (Slow release of emotional energy)
  • Social tools (People and social activities that make me feel better.)
  • Thinking Tools (Thoughts, problem solving ideas, my favourite things, gratitude)
  • Special Interest Tools (Being an expert in my interest)
  • Sensory Tools (slowing down the messages to my brain)

These are not failsafe strategies and not all these things will help all autistic children. They are just some ideas and strategies I have developed with and for the children I support. It is important that the child ‘owns’ what they are learning and knows it’s about their own self-regulation. Anxiety is a huge part of life and for some, it is the environment that is the issue, not their self-awareness.  We work with children individually and in small groups to work out how it is for them and then work with them to help them navigate and manage the anxiety they feel.  It has to be with them, for them and at their pace. 


Please do share your tips and ideas too. Thank you. 

Sensory Overload from an Adult Professional perspective.

Photo from Reachout ASC conference

Do we think beyond our autistic pupils and wonder if teaching staff or other professionals may be grown up autistic people?  Sensory overload, social confusion and other differences don’t go away, but many autistic adults spend a lot of time and energy trying to ‘mask’ their difficulties in busy, demanding environments.  This anonymous account from an autistic professional explains why we should make more accommodations so that we can all work better together.  Hope we can all think to ask “What can help?”

Here is their account:

Last week I attended a conference for professionals in education.  It was an amazing event; inspiring, exciting and thought provoking.  There was only one problem. I spent most the day in sensory overload.

If you looked at me sitting on the outskirts of the conference, not making eye contact, not joining conversation what assumptions would you make?  That I don’t want to be there?  That I’m aloof? Unfriendly?   What you don’t see, what you don’t understand is that I am in sensory over load, fighting to keep myself together and maintain some sort of integrity.

In reality, I am an intelligent, knowledgeable, successful professional and this conference is where I want to be.  I look forward to talking to colleagues and debating the important aspects of our work, striving to change the landscape of society but sensory overload is incapacitating.  As I shake, struggling to breathe, the lights, the noise, the people, the never-ending rooms with no way of escaping to fresh air, to space, all becomes too much and I fight back impending meltdown.

It isn’t one thing that causes sensory overload.  I sometimes travel for work.  Trains are a nightmare for me.  The flashing lights, the view rocketing past the window, the deafening noise and small space cause me to feel nausea and panic within minutes.  Then there is the tube. There seems no realistic alternative to travelling round London yet the tube could not be more averse to the needs of autistic people.  My skin feels like it is on fire and I have the overwhelming needs to tear it off.  There is no room to breathe, the noise and lights are horrendous.  The experience is so overwhelming I can’t catch my breath, I go dizzy and panic sets in.  The need to escape is crushing.

When I arrive at the conference there is nowhere to escape to, nowhere to sit and self-regulate to hold the melt down at bay.  Because I have been unable to regulate the overload does not subside.  As I walk into a room full of professionals I respect and admire, I know I must make a decision, a simple decision, where to sit?   There are too many tables, too many people, so much noise I can’t distinguish people’s voices.  It is like there is a wrench jammed into the cogs of my brain and no matter how hard I try I cannot get it moving again.I am unable to join conversations, unable to step further into the room and the panic is rising and all I want you to know is I am not always like this;  I am a professional, I am knowledgeable, I am good at my job but the cogs won’t move.  People come up to me and talk to me and I can’t find the words to respond.  I smile and stumble over my words and they have no idea I am screaming inside about to break down.

Sensory overload is debilitating.  Terrifying.  A tornado that swoops in, wreaks havoc on your brain and body and leaves exhaustion, migraines, nausea and uncontrollable shaking in its wake. It can take me days to recover from an experience like this.

So why am I telling you this? Why do I want you to know what it feels like to be in sensory overload? When in sensory overload your communication skills are compromised more than usual and it can be impossible to tell someone what is happening.  After 6 hours of being at the conference I was brave enough to tell one person.  The response I had was ‘what would help?’  So simple, yet no one has ever asked that question before. Well, there are a few things you can do.

Provide somewhere quiet and let people know it’s there.  Sometimes a few minutes in a low stimulus environment is all it takes to self-regulate.

Allow people to stim.  Standing up and rocking, pacing, fidgeting or other such movements can really help to regulate sensory input.

If you see someone on the outskirts don’t assume they don’t want to join in.  Initiate conversation and give then a topic to talk about. It helps to ease the anxiety to have a focus.

Invite them to sit with you.  Sometimes a friendly face can mean the world.

Remember, every autistic person’s experience is different and just because you are not explicitly aware of any autistic people in your target audience, doesn’t- mean we aren’t here.