Less structured parts of the school day can be difficult for autistic children and young people to cope with. This may be for a number of reasons such as difficulty with communicationsocial skills and differing sensory needs. 

Here, we look at how teachers and other school staff can help them during break and lunchtimes.

We also talk about changes to the school day, exams and how important it is to set appropriate and achievable homework.

Break and lunch time

In contrast to their peers, children and young people on the autism spectrum may not enjoy break and lunch times. This could be because they:

  • find the lack the structure and routine that they need difficult
  • are daunted by noisy, busy and unpredictable environments, such as the dining hall
  • can lack the fast processing of conversation and social interaction skills that are needed
  • may be fearful of bullying, including social isolation. 

Here are some ways you can help: 

  • Organise structured lunchtime clubs, focusing on shared interests.
  • Provide social learning.
  • Try using social stories or comic strip conversations if a pupil is concerned about a particular situation.
  • Ensure that there is good supervision by staff that have had understanding autism training.
  • Teach autism awareness and acceptance amongst peers.
  • Have a zero tolerance ‘no bullying’ policy and ensure that all staff are aware of procedures.
  • Use a buddy system or have a buddy bench in the playground.

When using a buddy system, it’s important to not let the autistic child or young person become too dependent on just one person. If they do and that person is absent then their anxiety level may increase and this can lead to behaviour that challenges or a meltdown.

Some autistic pupils may find social interaction too demanding. If you have tried to help them form friendships, but can see that they would rather be alone, then try to accommodate them having this time in a quiet and safe area.

Changes to the school day

Pupils on the autism spectrum can find any kind of change or transition difficult. Having a different teacher or learning support/teaching assistant can be unsettling as can changes in the timetable due to enrichment activities. It’s important that you prepare them for change.

Lesson changeover times can also be challenging. It may be appropriate for you to allow an autistic pupil to leave the class early so that they can avoid busy and noisy corridors. You could also match them with a mentor or buddy who can accompany them.

Exams

Autistic pupils and students might face particular challenges during exams, including making appropriate choices, preparation and revision.

Read exam guidance for parents and education professionals.

Homework

Completing homework can also be a problem for children and young people on the autism spectrum. This is because:

  • they may take longer to process information and have not been able to record their homework correctly or have it recorded for them.
  • they may have a very rigid thought process and are unable to adapt to the change in working environment.
  • the homework you have set may be too difficult or they may forget a concept that you have taught in school. This can lead to frustration and anger at home.
  • the homework you have set may be too easy or repeats what you have already covered in class. This could mean that they don’t see the point in completing the homework.

You can make homework more accessible by:

  • making reasonable adjustments to homework by differentiating the work
  • give clear instructions and check they have understood
  • use homework diaries or planners and ensure that homework is recorded in them.

This will give them the opportunity to achieve with homework in the same way as their peers.

Good communication with parents about homework is also helpful, you could clarify tasks with a parent by email. Most importantly, try to be flexible with homework deadlines and consequences for late or unfinished homework

Further help from our charity

MyWorld free teaching resources.
Bullying and autistic pupils
Teaching autism awareness
Helping pupils with a demand avoidant profile at your school
Autism in the primary classroom
Autism in the secondary classroom
Autism resource pack for school staff

Useful contacts

Autism Education Trust

Last reviewed: 11 April 2017.