School can be challenging for your child or young person, with unstructured times being particularly difficult. Here, we look at reasons for this and ways in which parents and school can help. 

Autistic children and young people have difficulty with communication, social interaction, friendships and imaginative play.  Because of this, the playground can be intimidating as they can’t read body language of others and find it difficult to understand ‘social rules’. They may have difficulty developing social skills and understanding jokes or idioms.

Children and young people with autism like structure and routine because it helps them to cope in an unpredictable world.  A school dining room or playground can be distressing for them as they can: 

  • have difficulty understanding other people’s behaviour
  • struggle to cope with unpredictability
  • be sensitive to sound, lights or smells.

Support ideas 

Wherever possible, it’s important to have an open and mutually supportive relationship with your child or young person’s school.  Here are some ideas that you can try or suggest to school to help them feel more comfortable in the school environment.

Personal portfolios

A personal portfolio can also be called a personal passport. This can help others to better understand your child or young person’s difficulties and strategies that can be used with them.

Lunchtime clubs

Lunchtime clubs can be useful, especially if the activity is of a particular interest to your child or young person and you know that they can be actively involved.
Be cautious of lunchtime activities that can be viewed as punishment eg litter picking, it’s important to understand the difference between a structured activity and a directive one.


Good supervision during unstructured time is essential. Staff can monitor and observe autistic children and young people and then identify and share the support needs of those who can’t express their own feelings. 

Ask school what supervision your child or young person has during unstructured times. It’s useful for all support staff to have some autism awareness training, particularly those offering playground support. 

A safe and quiet place

It’s useful for autistic children and young people to have an agreed safe and quiet place for them to go when they feel anxiety building or are overloaded by sensory stimuli. This could be within the school inclusion unit, library or calmer area of the school and may not be the same for all autistic pupils. 

To avoid stigma being attached to this place, it’s helpful to choose an area that has many established uses.  

Talk to school to see if they can designate an area for your child or young person and whether this could also be used at the beginning and end of the school day. It’s important that they also have the opportunity to interact socially, use this resource carefully by monitoring the need for and benefit of it by discussing it with your child or young person regularly.

Social skills and self-esteem

Social lessons

Social skills or self-esteem lessons can help to boost confidence. These can help autistic children and young people to increase their understanding of social situations, interpret non-verbal signals and practise skills such as turn-taking, listening and negotiating. Classes should be tailored for the pupils who are attending.

Ask school if they use any social education programmes such as Time to Talk or Socially Speaking and whether your child or young person could be included.


Social stories™ and comic strip conversations

Many autistic children and young people lack social understanding. Social stories™ are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why.

Comic strip conversations use symbols, colour and stick figure drawings to represent the different elements of a conversation.  Seeing the more abstract aspects of social communication visually can help to make the feelings of other more concrete and easier to understand. 

If your child or young person is struggling with a particular social situation or event in school, ask support staff if they could write a social story™ or comic strip conversation to help.

Circle of Friends

Your child or young person’s school may be able to use the Circle of Friends approach, this is often used to develop social and communication skills and may help them to cope better during unstructured times.

Visual supports

Visual supports can be used as prompts for your child or young person. For example, they may have a card that reminds them to go to the safe and quiet place if they become anxious.

Stress scales can also help autistic children and young people who find it difficult to understand and communicate their emotions.  Traffic light systems, a visual thermometer or a scale of 1 – 5 that present emotions as colours or numbers can be useful to them during unstructured times.

You could work with your child or young person at home to produce a visual prompt, or a stress scale such as the incredible five point scale


Schools should have a zero tolerance no bullying policy that is consistently enforced. Any incident of bullying must be investigated and pupils should be encouraged to report any kind of intimidating behaviour. Your child should feel comfortable talking about bullying they are experiencing and be confident that action will be taken.

Some autistic children and young people may not recognise bullying, so it’s important that teaching and support staff observe behaviour in and out of the classroom.

Classroom and learning support assistants are often able to notice an incident or hear remarks made by other pupils and should document these to share with relevant staff and parents. 

One form of bullying is social exclusion. It can help autistic children and young people to have a ‘buddy’ during unstructured times. This could be a peer who spends lunchtime with your child or young person, either regularly or when there is a particular need.  

School could identify a specific bench or area in the playground as a ‘buddy’ stop. This can help playground assistants to identify children and young people who need help to interact with others.  

It is important that your child or young person has identified adults that they can talk to about concerns. Having more than one person will avoid them becoming stressed due to the absence of an identified adult. 

An autistic child or young person may find social interaction too demanding. If attempts have been made to support them to develop friendships and it’s clear their choice is to spend time alone, they should be allowed to do so.

Awareness and understanding

You could speak to your child or young person’s teacher about creating opportunities for all pupils to develop an understanding of medical conditions, special educational needs and disabilities. This could be a school assembly where information on many additional needs can be presented, without highlighting a particular condition or pupil. 

Many autistic children and young people will have difficulties during unstructured times, but empathy and understanding from others will help. 

It is important to remember that children and young people on the autism spectrum are different from each other and strategies that work with one may not be suitable for others. 

Children and young people with a demand avoidant profile will need different education support strategies.  

Work with the school to help them develop a flexible approach to your child or young person’s needs during unstructured times. Remember that any interventions or approaches should be reviewed on a regular basis. 

Further Help

Further help for parents trying to obtain an appropriate education for their child or young person with autism is available from our Education Rights Service.

Online resources for teachers

The National Autistic Society’s resource pack for school staff and MyWorld teaching resources. 

Our classroom and playground booklet

Books and DVDs

Asperger syndrome - A Helping Hand
Dr Meher Pocha et al. Presented by Vicki Michelle
A DVD to help young people with Asperger Syndrome feel more confident in tricky social situations. 

Autism, Play and Social Interaction
Lone Gammeltoft and Marianne Sollok Nordenhof
Fully illustrated guide explaining how to help children on the autism spectrum engage in interactive play and acquire social skills. 

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Last reviewed: 11 January 2016.