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.

The Other Side of Autism.


By now you might have heard the story about a dad putting out an appeal for a blue Tommee Tippee cup for his autistic son, Ben,  who won’t drink from any other cup.  The cup his son has used since he was 2 years old is wearing out and there is nothing at all they can persuade him to take a drink from. Hundreds of identical cups have now been sent to the family. Tommee Tippee have made a special batch from an old mould so he’ll have a life time supply of identical cups.

Doesn’t that make you feel good? Does it make you say aaahhh, and restore your faith in humanity?

But have you read on? Have you read that the boys family can still not persuade their son to drink out of any of the new cups, even ones that are battered and old too? It still has to be the same old cup. They have all these identical cups, but to Ben, they are not.  He is not being awkward or naughty.   Ben is autistic. 

I spent a good few years working in a special school with children with this type of autism. Children who found the world completely confusing and overwhelming. Children who could not speak at all or who could speak but not communicate what they were finding difficult. These were children who were interested in many different things, who had a sense of humour and could explore and interact with those that they felt safe with. They were also children who made progress. But the progress we wanted to measure was not the progress demanded by the National Curriculum. 

There are children with autism who will grow up into adults who need lifelong care. They will never be able to live independently and many will never learn to talk.  They will communicate and show their feelings through behaviour. That behaviour might be happy, excited, withdrawn, violent, self-harming, repetitive or self-stimulating. Their families must care for them and must fight to get the support and services that they are entitled to, but are rare to find working well. Many will need to be supported in social care services, supported living accommodation and forever be at the mercy of politicians and dwindling resources. They will have to rely on staff who are poorly paid, work long hours and shifts. They may be lucky and find a place that is well run, trains it’s staff, understands their personal needs and abilities and provides a life for the people who it cares for.  These places do exist and families whose children go to these as adults are profoundly grateful that they do. You probably don’t want to think about the alternative, but people with this kind of autism are vulnerable to bullying, abuse, neglect and not having any of the dignity they deserve from those who are paid to look after them.  It is no wonder families with children with all kinds of autism are worried about their child’s future.

This kind of autism seems a world away from most mainstream classrooms.   Autism is truly a wide spectrum.

In the TES this Friday, Uta Frith wrote about how she thinks that only special schools can really teach children with autism well. She made the point that all children on the autistic spectrum need a bespoke education programme because our education system is not set up for them at all. After working in both the mainstream and the special school sector I would have to agree with much of what she says. Yes, children with autism need their own bespoke education plans. (It’s what we do in our role as a specialist teachers, even in mainstream schools). They need well trained staff who ‘get it’ and know many different ways to provide good communication, education, life skills and social interaction. Every child with autism is different. There are many who can cope with and survive our mainstream education system, on the surface. With a good support system and understanding of their condition, many can thrive and achieve in mainstream schools. (There really are those that do, but it is often at the expense of having to work much harder than anyone else and experiences of bullying, social exclusion and anxiety far beyond what most children go through. )

But those with the kind of autism that means they can’t even pretend to cope in a mainstream school – they need the specialist schools, staff and systems that work for their needs, not the league tables or government incentives. The National Curriculum means nothing to them. A safe, secure, predictable learning environment with staff who know how to teach them, with therapists, equipment and opportunities to learn in the community can be better found in a special school.

I’m a fan of inclusion. I believe in it with my whole heart. But not at the expense of failing children whose needs are profound and very different from the way we do things in mainstream schools. Mainstream schools as they are cannot meet the needs of all autistic children. Especially the ones like Ben with the Tommee Tippee cup. We need to recognise the amazing specialist work the teachers and staff in a specialist school do, we need to recognise that the curriculum for many children with these needs will work best if it is matched to their needs. 

My only worry (and it’s a big one) is that by seeing special schools and children with these profound needs as separate, then we encourage social exclusion. My greatest desire is that all children grow up seeing disability as part of being human. That they don’t think it is clever to call people with learning disabilities names in the street and that they want to make a society that cares for those who need caring for all their lives within a fair and competent system. I hope that they fight for the society that makes it so. But if they never meet or interact with people with that kind of disability as children, they maybe they won’t even know they are there when they are adults.



Autism and Homework

picture from

It is seriously one of the biggest issues we have to deal with when we support secondary autistic students, so I thought it would be worth sharing my suggestions about homework.

So…if you have a student refusing, never seeming to do homework, parents are saying that it is causing meltdowns and great distress, the student is always in detention for homework not being done, or their homework is of poor quality, here are some thoughts from Emma and I…

We don’t find it helpful to start with “Not doing homework is not an option” (this often comes from SLT) because that immediately clashes with the need to meet the child’s needs.

Homework is desirable and necessary as they work towards GCSEs as we know.  So what should happen is a plan to work up to achieving homework success.

First you have to evaluate what the barriers are to homework for the pupil.  They could be any or all of the following (or other things too)…

Rigid thinking pattern – “school is school / home is home” and not having the energy and thinking to accept that homework is the part of school you do at home.

Sensory stress – after keeping it together all day, they just have to let go of that stress at home and is in no fit state to do homework. (see – this will explain it well)

Comprehension – does the student really understand what they have to do for homework? Have they copied it down correctly, has the teacher explained it in away they can understand?

Executive Functioning skills – has the student got the organisation, planning, self monitoring, predicting and working memory skills to be able to do homework independently? Auditory Processing difficulties are common in autistic pupils, they may only catch odd words in the verbal instructions and so never be able to write the homework down properly. 

Fear of failure – schools are so quick to impose sanctions on autistic students who don’t do homework that you set them up for constant failure and there then is no desire to try as they fear the sanction and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. So many of my students start being given detentions as part of the schools rigid behaviour policy. This is not taking into account their SEND.

Here are some of the strategies we have tried successfully:

  • Sit down with the student and the parent and discuss what the barriers might be. Then explain that homework is something important but you are going to make a stepped plan together to enable it to be successful.
  • Remember homework must have a real purpose not be just a time filler so teacher has fulfilled their objectives (and can show senior management that they always set homework) The autistic students need to see the point of what they are doing (and other students too, I would suggest).
  • Let all teachers know the plan – that their responsibility is to make sure the pupil understands and can achieve the homework.  This may have to be differentiated at first.  Structured activities or projects based on their interests work best, rather than open ended activities.   Differentiate the sanctions – so if student can show they have tried, they don’t get detentions.
  • Help the student learn organisation skills and along with parents discuss together how they are going to organise themselves at home. It may need a visual or written timetable, a sand or electronic timer and a reminder that after the agreed time it is ok to finish.
  • Homework clubs are good if the student isn’t feeling overwhelmed – so have a clear purpose and build rewards into success – such as if homework is done with the help, parents will allow time on computer etc.
  • Sometimes autistic pupils need a reduced timetable and the free periods are used to do homework for the rest of their subjects.  This can go a long way to ease stress from too many subjects and homework.
  • Social Stories are always good to record what you have agreed, explain it well and clearly and to leave with the student for them to remind themselves of the positive support and help they can get. Social stories are positive and affirming so help with self esteem too.
  • I can do my homework Here is a social story that might help.
  • Parents can set up a workstation at home (a desk or other quiet place in a hall or quiet room works well) and have clear start and end times, discourage internet use unless essential for the work and a favoured activity to do when they have finished.
  • If writing is a problem let them do all their work typed on a computer but insist it has to be printed out and put into their book.
  • Make homework successful, start easy, with what they CAN do and build it up.
  • If there is sensory stress, allow sensory breaks and out these in place throughout the school day. Even very bright students can benefit greatly from these.


I have used and implemented all these strategies and schools have seen students build up to doing more homework, more successfully. However, I will say that occasionally homework just has to be suspended for the sake of the student managing and coping with the rest of the school day. This is often temporary but we have to remember that we are supporting a child with a SEND and that is their need.

Autism in the Early Years

Children can be diagnosed with autism before they are 5, but there will also be a significant number of autistic children that are not diagnosed until later.  It is therefore important that early years staff are aware of what autism is, how to recognise the signs in young children and what they can do about it.  Training is important, as is good observation skills and awareness of other SEND conditions, as it may not necessarily be autism.

Whether or not a child has a diagnosis, if they have characteristics that seem like autism and they are finding it difficult to access play and learning in the early years setting, then generally the strategies that would be suggested for autistic children, can also be used with any child.  That is because they are about accepting the child’s individual needs and strengths, communicating well to them and providing a structure to and visual support for learning.

Language delay and echolalia (repeating words, phrases or scripts) are often features of autistic children, but some have amazingly advanced language and vocabulary.  Some will find reading easy and some will find it difficult.  They may have special interests, they may have limited and repetitive play.  They may find other pupils confusing and avoid them, or they may be always in the middle of the group, sometimes trying to dominate what everyone else will do. They may find eye contact difficult but have amazing memory.

Many children with autism struggle most with sensory overload in a busy early years environment.  Focus and attention are difficult when you are trying so hard to stop the noise, light, smell, movement, colours and textures overwhelming you. Or they may be finding it hard to work out where their body is in the space around them.  (There are many other features that may give us cause to believe a child has autism but not enough room in a blog to say them all.)

It is obviously necessary to work with parents and the school SENCO if staff believe a child may have autism. If a child has a diagnosis already, then it is important to make sure that their needs are being accommodated for and met.

The best way to include and support an autistic child is to get on their level, work from where they are and allow them to lead the way.  Provide structure, visual support and time for them to process what you ask them to do.  Play can be developed by first entering their world and Intensive Interaction is a good way to do this. ( ) If a child is anxious to control what is happening or easily upset when there is change or unexpected outcomes, then support them in learning to understand that different things can happen through interesting toys and activities.  Don’t overwhelm them with demands and instructions but do break tasks into steps they can achieve.

There is so much more I could write.  Emma and I love working with early years children because there are so many things that can be done to build up their strengths and skills.  We look at making the environment sensory friendly for them and find the strategies to help them play and learn.

I have written a lot more about autism in the early years, much of which is in my book “How to Support Pupils with Autism Spectrum Condition in Primary School” published by LDA.   I also recommend

This book is good too Autism in the Early Years

I also run courses specifically for nurseries, early years settings and childminder groups.   Contact us for information.

Spoon Theory and Autism.

My friend @AnnMemmott who blogs at  first introduced me to the Spoon Theory in relation to autism.  It was originally created by Christine Miserandino when asked about her chronic illness, (you can read the original post here ) but is a great way of helping us understand why school and college is such hard work for autistic children and young people (CYP) .  @aspiemusings has also written a good post about how it relates to her as an autistic adult.

Let’s imagine that the social, sensory and intellectual energy an autistic person has each day can be measured in spoons….

An autistic person can start the school or college or work day with a full drawer (which may be only half as full as a typical child) or with some of their spoons already used up in dealing with the demands of getting there.  Depending on various factors such as whether they slept, if their family remembered to say goodbye the right way, if their clothes are itching their skin, if their routine was changed, or any number of other seemingly incidental events, they may be starting the day with, say, only 5 spoons instead of 10.

Then they need to start using their spoons.  Each set of instructions, each set of work demands, each time they have to organise themselves, follow a complex set of instructions or cope with change, and each social interaction may cost the autistic person a spoon.  If there are sensory sensations that are overwhelming, then another spoon is used up in regulating and keeping calm. If they have to work in a group more than one spoon may be needed. Break times are not relaxing, another spoon or two is used up in coping with all the social interaction, noise and lack of structure.  Some  manage to save a spoon by shutting off, taking the time to be alone, so that they can cope with the next set of lessons.

I hope you can see what might be happening

So you have a CYP who seems okay in the morning but always seems to lose it in the afternoon.  Or they won’t join in anything at break times and paces around the perimeter of the yard or social space.  Or a person who has meltdowns some days but is fine on other days.  Or parents ask you what you are doing to their CYP as they always have a meltdown as soon as they come out of school…and getting them to do homework is impossible.  You may have a colleague at work who seems not to be able to speak to you on some days, unable to socialise and seems distracted and distressed.

You might assume you need more structure in the afternoons.  You might assume you need to teach the person some social skills so they can make friends at break times. You might assume the parent isn’t disciplined enough.  You might put all kinds of practical support in place, but it doesn’t really work.

It may just be that the autistic person has used up all their spoons.  They have no communication, organisation, sensory, social or intellectual energy left.  They might just be able to keep it together in the morning, but then are far too exhausted to carry on in the afternoon.  Some days there may be no spoons to deal with the things they usually seem okay with.  They might even be able to keep it together through the day but cannot contain themselves in the safety and familiarity of their home.  Some even manage to borrow spoons from the next day but there will be a day when there are no spoons left to borrow and the person has a major meltdown. 

credit: picture from

We can help by recognising the limited amount of spoons an autistic person may have.  We can help them conserve their spoons to last through the day and we can help them find ways of finding ways to add to their supply (not as easy as it sounds). Through:

  • Giving them calming sensory breaks which are timetabled and regular.
  • Look at your environment and see where you can make it calmer and more accessible, considering the persons sensory needs.
  • Break tasks and instructions into more manageable chunks, give them visual or written reminders so they can check them and allow them time to do each one.
  • Support organisation and set up a communication system where the autistic person can let you know if they are struggling.  Be aware that many find this difficult especially when it demand using a ‘communication spoon’ and they may not be able recognise that they are struggling until it is too late.   But structuring tasks for them whether through a list, visual schedule, practical equipment or a writing frame can still help.  It will be useful if you can learn to ‘read’ their autistic non-verbal communication and know when to reduce demands. 
  • Let the person do activities related to their special interests.  If the topic doesn’t lend itself to this, then allow them time with their interests once the task is finished. 
  • Let them request ‘time out’ or a break.  It is important for the autistic person to recognise when things are getting too much for them and request a break before frustration and overload leads them to communicate this in behaviours or reach the point where they cannot cope and meltdown happens. But this may take a lot of support to help them learn to recognise their pwn state. 
  • Let them have alone time at break times if they want to.  Or give them alternative things to do, especially at lunch times. Social interaction can be encouraged at other times when they have the spoons to cope with it.
  • Make sure they are able to do homework and be as flexible as possible about it.  Ask yourself if they really need to do it at that point.  See if there is a way they can do something more interesting to them such as a project about their special interest. Or for many of our students, homework is just the ‘straw that breaks the camels back’ and we need to cut it our altogether.  
  • If the person is having a minimal spoon start to the day, increase the sensory breaks, reduce the social and work demands and expect that they will find it much harder to concentrate.

If you understand the autistic person and they can trust you, they won’t take advantage of your adaptations, they will feel safe, understood and be able to cope with more challenges than maybe you thought possible.  Maybe you should keep a couple of spoons on your desk with the person’s name on, and remove one when things are not going so well for them.   Then think about how you would cope with just one spoon left and no way of buying any more…

Have a look at the rest of my website for free resources, information about training and courses I deliver and great autism links.  Just click on the tabs above…

Building good relationships with parents of children with autism.

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“We don’t see that behaviour at school”

“He’s doing it on purpose, he gets away with it at home”

“There’s no structure at home, you know”

These are one or two of the comments I hear regularly.It certainly not from all teachers or teaching staff, and it’s certainly not heard in many schools I work with.  But during training discussions or the occasional, off-the-cuff remark, there is an underlying search to find blame for a child with autism’s behaviour.   Especially when they have meltdowns,  in school or at home.   Or if the behaviour is a controlling or manipulating behaviour.   No teacher likes to think a child is trying to manipulate them.  We are human after all.

Don’t get me wrong….

Don’t get me wrong, parents of children with autism are as human as the rest of us.  Some are so overwhelmed they don’t know what to do, some are given a diagnosis and then dropped into a black hole of nothing,  no advice, no courses, no strategies, no support.  Some are dealing with their own difficulties, some families are broken and dealing with issues beyond what we may know.   Some families are trying everything they can, do all the research, attend all the courses and know their child’s needs inside out.

We can safely assume all parents love their child with autism, want the best for them and need support and understanding from the school system to help them travel this journey with a child with special needs.  No matter what their circumstances the very first barrier they come up against is judgement.

Sometimes, as we discuss behaviour on a course I am presenting, the teaching staff want to know how much of a child’s behaviour is because the parent isn’t doing a good job.   It can sound like they want to pass the buck to explain why they are finding the child’s behaviour difficult to control, manage or change.   Obviously I do explain how supporting a child who has high anxiety, sensory overloads, constant need for routines and familiarity, and difficulty with social relationships (including the interactions with family members) as well as trying to develop a safe, loving, constant, predictable and supportive life for their child is just as much a learning journey for the parent as it is for the school.   We only have the child in our class for one year in a primary school or a few lessons a week if at secondary school.   The parent has the child’s whole life to think of and that will be their focus.   They will be worried that their needs will not be met.  They will worry about admitting that they can’t help their child with their meltdown’s or other behaviours.   They will worry about them growing up and needing care when they aren’t there.   They will worry whether they could ever get married, have children, hold down a job.

And school is so often a battleground.  Parents have to fight to get their child’s needs met.  They have to try to understand the complex SEND processes and the tonnes of paperwork, appointments and in-depth questioning of their family life just to get some help for their child at school.  (Some parents know the SEND law far better than schools, because they have had to).  They are well aware that their child with autism is often under great stress just to manage the social, communication and curriculum demands of each day.   As teachers we need to understand this. And yes, occasionally, some parents will be getting it wrong.  But who are we to use that against them?   It’s our job as teachers to do all we can to make school work for a child with autism, and where possible work with parents in a professional and positive way.   Every bit of effort you put into building a positive relationship with parents (even those who start off very defensive or even aggressive) will pay off and can help the child in ways you couldn’t do without it.

So here are my top tips for working with parents.

  • Communicate. Communicate.  Communicate.  Plan this so it is manageable and set an agenda for chats if you need to.  I encourage schools to set a regular time to talk to parents about what their child is doing in school.  For example, every Thursday after school for ½ hour.  Or every 2 weeks for so many minutes.  Whatever time you can make or is available.  Email each other, but put safe boundaries in for you both to understand.  This can help prevent parents and teachers or TAs getting frustrated about when they can meet up and prevent getting into the habit of meeting EVERY afternoon which isn’t sustainable.  Some parents like a list of points they can prepare for, others just want to ‘offload’.  Remember you can’t solve all the problems they are having.  Often all they need is for someone to listen.   If you have agreed the timescale before-hand, make sure you give your full attention to them for that time you have promised.
  • When you talk to parents don’t make it a list of everything the child has done wrong.  Tell them important news about what’s happening in school, what their child has done well and celebrate excellent moments.  Many children with autism do not tell their parents anything about school.  School is school, home is home.   Some are too exhausted to recall what has been for them a stressful day, even when things have gone well.
  • Remember that parents do know their children best.   Ask, listen and learn from them.
  • Consider using a home-school diary.  Share bullet points about the events of the day and a general overview of the child’s positive moments.   If the child is non-verbal you could use a picture based record like the one below. 
  • Parents do need to know about serious incidents but these should be spoken about by phone or face to face rather than third hand (from other parents) or via the home-school book.
  • Invite parents to contribute the targets in the child’s IEP.  We used to have ways the parent could (if they wanted) generalise the target at home.  This was particularly useful for communication, social and independence targets.  
  • Find out where they can get extra help / support for issues that are beyond school.  A list of local support groups for a variety of SEND needs can be put on the schools website.

I’m sure there are many more ideas.  Please do share your good practice in the comments.  There’s too many parents of children with SEND /Autism who find school communication frustrating, patronising and difficult.  It doesn’t have to be.  And if it does break down because there is a parent who doesn’t want to work with school, then we stay professional and still do the right thing.  It’s our job. 

resource made by Lynn McCann @ReachoutASC


We are all different…So why don’t they see it?

I’ve been doing some work with some girls with Autism Spectrum Condition recently and they have been amazingly perceptive about the reasons why they are left out, teased or ignored by their peers.  All of them have talked about not understanding why all the other girls want to be the same as each other and why one minute they are as nice as anything to them, and another time nasty and cruel.  (Two faced!) This is a poem we wrote together based on their comments.

Don’t they just have a point!

We’re all different, then why are they all trying to be the same?

We’re all different.

From the nails on our toes

To our nose, that’s how it goes

Don’t you know?

So why do you insist

On trying to persist

In being the same

Surely it’s a game?

I don’t understand

Why you call me weird

I seem to be feared

But you don’t make sense,

When you dye your hair

To look like her, and her, and her

Losing yourself

On an identical shelf.

Me, I’m different

In the wiring of my brain

But it would be insane

If we were all the same.

Autism makes sense to me

But you don’t, you see

You pretend you fit

Why won’t you admit

We’re all different

From the comfort we need

And the lives we will lead.

Let’s embrace who we are

And forget to compare.

(C) Lynn McCann 8.1.16 

Post 16 Transition for students with SEND / ASC.

At this time of year many secondary teachers are thinking about the looming GCSE’s for their Y11’s and may also be thinking about what happens next for their students. If a student has SEND / ASC then there are additional challenges when leaving school and moving on to the next step in their educational lives.

I often find that the student’s themselves realise in Y10 that they will soon be leaving school. For some they may be so relieved that it’s all they want to think about.  For other’s it’s such a massive change in their lives, after all, being at school is all they’ve ever known, that the anxiety it causes can seriously impact on their concentration, mental wellbeing and motivation in school.  Some are so anxious, they cannot bear to talk about it.

This blog is co-written by @Mr_ALNCo an FE Teacher who’s created a role for a Transition Support Worker at his FE college in South Wales. First I am going to look at transition to college or training from the viewpoint of the school, and James is going to offer advice from the college’s point of view.


What Secondary Schools can do.

The Y10 and Y11s I work with who have ASC are often very worried about leaving school. However, working with them to explain what leaving will be like, what options they have and developing some plans that enable them to see the way ahead can be really important. If they have an EHCP then transition meetings should start in Y9. By the time they get to Y11, the meetings should be with the college or other establishment they are going to go to and make a plan of support that the student and their parents can contribute to.  If no EHCP their needs are still important and preparing them for college or apprenticeships is just as important.

  1. Include their parent’s ideas and start with a familiar member of staff who knows the student well.  With the student, work out a number of choices they have for the their future. Talk about their aspirations, their favourite interests and subjects they might do well in.  I use a decision making visual to look at the pros and cons of each option, including what grades might be needed (and what option is available with lower grades if relevant.) This information is shared with parents and the family given time to explore and discuss with their child. I have done this in Y9 to help a student choose their options, but mainly with Y10s and Y11s,  depending on the individual.
  2. Use the internet to research the possible colleges and courses the student might be interested in. There are often a few places to choose from, depending on your area. School 6th Forms might be good for some students for familiarity, but for others might be limited on choice of subjects. Every student will need treating individually to find what will work for them.
  3. Find out what apprenticeships are offered and if support is available for their SEND needs. Present that information to the student and their family, and encourage parents to arrange some visits to these places as early as possible. One student I have worked with has been set up with a farming apprenticeship in conjunction with the family, a local college and a local farm. All bespoke for him.
  4. Talk to the student about growing up and teach them some practical life skills, again working together with parents. Using public transport, making phone calls, sending emails, using money and paying for things are really important skills to help them move on from school into post 16 life.
  5. Plan, talk, prepare, visit, familiarise, support and talk positively about the next stage. But don’t overdo it. They still have to finish their time at school and some pupils with SEND /ASC might not be able to cope with thinking about exams and college. In that case, plan some transition support after GCSEs have finished. One school I worked with brought the student back into school after GCSEs and he worked with his previous TA on getting ready for college with great success.

And now from @Mr_ALNCo

What Colleges can do.

Transition for learners with SEND/ALN is something that traditionally is rather inconsistent across the FE sector in Wales or where it is consistent, the chance to share this good practice is often limited. Many practitioners who work with learners with SEND/ALN know the importance a good transition pathway into college can have for learners.

I am lucky, in that I have a supportive Principal and Vice Principal who supported my view of the importance of transition, allowing me to create a specific role to help support transition and reviews within the college. A new post which we feel will have huge beneficial impact.

Much like the Local Area Reviews now taking place in England, Wales has seen a huge change in make-up of its FE provision over the past years, resulting in fewer, larger, more resilient colleges.

In addition to this, the Welsh Government has introduced a bill into the Senedd in Cardiff Bay which, if passed, will bring about the biggest change to the SEN system in Wales for the past 30 years. Much like the duties contained Children and Family Act 2014, (although there are some differences), FE, for the first time will have new statutory duties, one of which is to maintain an Individual Development Plan for learners with SEN/ASD. If you want to know more, visit the Welsh Government’s ALN pages on its website.

It is crucial that FE in all areas start to plan for this now. If we want better outcomes for our learners with SEND/ALN we need to make sure that they get the best possible start in college. How then can we ensure this happens? From a FE perspective looking out to fellow practitioners in schools, the 4 elements below go some way to helping

  1. Link with your college’s Learning Support department. There are many talented and caring professionals who can advise on course choice, adjustments and transition arrangements. Open up the lines of communication and don’t be afraid to ask questions
  2. Share any relevant material which will help support the learner. If the learner has a One Page Profile, this is a great way for staff in college to get to know the learner.
  3. Invite the college to any Annual Reviews which are taking place for learners who are expressing an interest in college. The more we know about the learners’ aspirations and support requirements, the easier it will be to work together.
  4. Many colleges hold open days and bespoke events in quieter times for learners with SEND/ALN, if not contact the college who will normally be more than willing to arrange a bespoke meeting/tour. Our college has recently introduced VR tours, something that fellow FE colleague, Joe Baldwin has used as a powerful transition tool.

For each learner, we hold a review within the first term to see how they are settling into college. This gives us an opportunity to change the things that aren’t working and continue the things that are working well.

Much like our learners, we as a college are always learning.


You can access our FREE course with Schudio TV about transitions, including an update from Cardiff and Vale College Here

Help! I’ve Got a Child with Autism in My Class

Don’t panic

If you are getting an autistic child in your class for the first time this September, you may have heard many things about autism which makes you nervous about being able to meet the child needs within your class this year.  The first thing to remember is that every autistic child is different, has their own strengths as well as difficulties and with the right support can usually have a successful year in your class.

Here are 4 things you can do to start off your year with this child on the right footing:


To the parent who will be eager to tell you all about their child, what works for them, what upsets them and how it is for them at home.  This is important information and at the beginning of term it is quite okay just to listen and respond with a “I’m looking forward to getting to know your child.  Let’s meet again [at agreed date] and see what plans we can make for the rest of the year.”  Planned and structured meetings with parents can alleviate the anxieties they have and give you valuable information about the child.   Don’t forget to ask the parent about the child’s good points, interests and strengths.


You will more than likely be given some information about the child from their previous teacher or from your SENCO.   There may be anything from one page to a file full of paperwork.  Make it your priority to READ the most up to date document.   Hopefully this will be an Educational Psychologists report and/or an Education, Health and Care Plan.  Read the All About Me section which will give you the views of the parent and child themselves.   If you  are given nothing else but a one-page pupil profile READ THIS.   For all the paperwork I advise you to get a highlighter and highlight the statements that you think will be most useful for you to know as you plan for the child in your lessons.


Children with ASD need structure and predictability.  If you are advised or given a visual timetable for the child – It isn’t wallpaper,  it needs to be changed every day, the child needs to be able to take off each activity as it finishes and know that the day is going to end and when.   Visual timetables teach the child about order and sequencing, supports them to be able to organise themselves and supports the development of their memory and recall skills.  Imagining what something will be like, or worrying about how long they have, or what is going to happen in the day are really common challenges for children with autism.   A visual timetable and other visual supports can make all the difference to them engaging in the classroom activities and lessons.  See here for more about Visual timetables


One of the best ways to motivate a child with autism is to link what they are doing to their special interests.  It can be in a reward chart of a TARDIS, lots of opportunities to write about their favourite topic, space in the day to indulge in a ‘topic box’ of items or toys that relate to their interests. Maths can be done through Lego, Beast Quest writing can cover English writing targets and Space can be linked to and illustrate all kinds of topics in the curriculum.   This works in primary and Secondary.   Be creative, and get the child on your side.  It does mean digressing from your carefully planned lessons, but think carefully about the learning target.  If it is to understand addition or quadratic equations – can it be made relevant to a pupil who finds school a great challenge and who has an area of great expertise that they are always being told they cannot talk about!

Of course, you want the child with Autism to engage in a variety of learning tasks and topics, but include and acknowledging their special interests or obsessions can build upon their strengths and make school that bit more successful for them.

This blog is going to answer questions about supporting pupils with autism, from teachers and support staff.   Ask your questions in the comments on each post, by using the contact form on this website or even just through Twitter or Facebook (@ReachoutASC or )

Supporting Children with Autism at Playtimes.

image from

Playtimes can be tricky for autistic children ….

  • It’s unstructured time – which some like (no demands) and others hate (don’t know what to do or how to fill the time).
  • It’s a sensory overload, – which some love because they are sensory seekers and need the movement and sensory stimulation and others hate because the sights, sounds, smells, noise, weather, movement, touch and space of a playground hurts them.
  • It’s socially demanding – which most don’t like because there’s a lot to take in, children are moving and talking and shouting and playing and coming at them from all directions.  They might not know where to start to even ask to play, and possibly no-one asks them to play.
  • The rules keep changing –  so when they thought they were playing one game, someone changes it to another,  just like that,  and they can’t keep up and are left behind, or get angry because you changed the rules and that is stressful beyond words.
  • There’s no place to escape –  some will wander, trying to find their own bit of space where they can just be on their own for a bit.  Others will invent their own worlds to escape to so the noise and mess around them can be shut out.
  • It’s scary and it’s easy to feel angry – Children are running, screaming and pushing. How do they know when to stop?  Imagine a child with autism who is frightened, because they don’t know how to stop themselves or join in without getting it wrong.  Hitting out at others is just getting them out of the way…or attempting to join in when you can’t communicate so well.
  • It’s exhausting –  even though a child with autism may look like they’re doing ok and joining in, the effort is exhausting.  You notice it when they come back into class, especially in the afternoon. Or maybe it’s their parents who find out when they go home and it all comes out.  They’ve used up all their spoons.
There are many reasons why playtimes can be difficult for children with autism.  These issues don’t go away when they get to high school; in fact, the child with autism can become more isolated and stressed over break times and no-one may notice.
It’s also important to understand that autistic children are social beings but often do things differently from others.  But this is okay as long as we can learn to communicate with each other.  Please look at this work by Dr Damian Milton called the Double Empathy Theory for more information on this.

“Whilst it is true that autistic people can struggle to process and understand the intentions of others within social interactions, when one listens to the accounts of autistic people, one could say such problems are in both directions.”     Dr Damian Milton – The Double Empathy Problem

Here are some ways you can help.

  • Build in some structure –  work with the child to find ways of structuring the playtimes.  It could be 3 x 5 minute activities.  It could be a set of game bags that they choose one to play with a friend. (Jenny Mossley’s playtime books have some great ideas about these).
  • Give them some time to be alone –  inside if necessary.  Some children need this.  Don’t force them to be sociable and interact with others if it is causing them so much stress.  They might like to just do nothing particular, a sensory calming activity, or to play with some of their favourite toys.  They might like to do certain jobs such as tidying the library or sorting out the Lego.   They might find this helps them cope better with the rest of the day.
  • Assess how anxious playtime is making the child –  This will indicate what you may need to do.  If anxiety is high, don’t ignore it.  Staying in, or letting them have a break from interaction may be the best thing you can do to help them regulate their anxiety.   For others, a TA to support them might be what they need and that makes them feel safer and happier.   For others, supporting them and the other children to play together well might be what they need.
  • Involve Sensory Movement Activities  –  Or any sensory activities that the child may use and is part of their sensory diet, if they have one.  Get other children to join in.   For example, a sensory seeking child may love to have a group of children doing a sensory circuit with them on the playground equipment.
  • Think carefully before using a TA to supervise 1:1 at playtimes –  Why are they there?  What is their role?  Is it to help the child learn skills they want to learn, or to prompt them about behaviour?  Is the TA going to be spending the time telling the child off, or modelling to other children how to interact well with the child?
  • Have a buddy group – This works more informally than a Circle of Friends.   It depends on the child and their desire to have people they can play with. Ideally a buddy group is supported through sessions where they work out what they all like to play, discuss what to do if someone doesn’t want to play and how to help each other to have an enjoyable playtime.It can work well with high school students too.
  • Have break time clubs –  Those that cover the particular interests of the children with ASC work well.  In primary schools, I have helped set up dinosaur, Mario and Lego clubs; games clubs and computer clubs.  In high schools, I’ve seen ‘Snack and Chat’ groups; Minecraft, Warhammer, craft and science clubs.
  • Teach how to be a social detective –  This helps children learn to understand what is going on, how to join in with what they would like to and learn to interact with their friends.  I do a lot of social skills teaching but it isn’t about trying to make the autistic child ‘fit in’ but is about teaching a group of children how to accept and get along with each other.   We often do this through social stories that explain and games to practice how we work together.  It helps the non-autistic children just as much because all children need to develop the skills and knowledge about how to interact successfully with a wide range of people.  That’s why listening to each other is a big part of that.

WE’ve developed a whole set of prepared resources you can buy to help you teach being a Social Detective – see here.

Part of the resistance to this level of support at playtimes comes from lack of staffing available to set up and implement/supervise these interventions.   But we also forget that we have staff, especially at lunch times that could be trained up to work with and support children with ASC.   Welfare staff are often the last to be invited to training and meetings about ASC or the children they spend an hour with every day.  Investment in welfare staff training can be very effective.