Autistic children and young people can find the school environment challenging and they can sometimes refuse to attend. School refusal may not just happen one day, it may continue until the reasons behind it have been identified and addressed.

Here we look at reasons that could be behind this. We also suggest strategies to try at home and school to help them maintain school attendance or reintegrate them back into school. 

Children and young people on the autism spectrum can face additional pressure at school. For example they may:

  • Lack social skills that are intuitive to others. These can be very complex and they may struggle to maintain social relationships with their peers.   
  • Have difficulty coping with the curriculum. This may be because they have reduced focusing skills and difficulty with understanding questions and/or text.
  • Struggle to cope with the demands of a school timetable due to difficulty with organisation and prioritising.
  • Have a sensory processing disorder that makes it difficult for them to tolerate the noise and busy school environment.  
  • Be striving for perfection in their work and may feel that anything less means they have failed. 
  • Find transitions, such as moving classroom or changing teacher causes anxiety at school
  • Have separation anxiety, finding it difficult to be apart from family, or away from the familiar routines of home.

If your child is unwell due to stress or any other condition that means they will be absent for longer than a few days, then you should get a medical certificate from their GP. You should also let the school and the local or education authority know and discuss arrangements for alternative education.

Reasons why your child or young person may be refusing school

Consider whether there is a pattern to the absences. Are they trying to avoid a particular situation, lesson or person that causes anxiety?

Speak to a member of staff at school who knows your child well and ask for their help. They may be showing signs of anxiety in school at particular times. Alternatively, your child may display different behaviour at home to that in school

Understanding their behaviour can be difficult, you may like to suggest to school that they use some of the strategies included in our teacher pack to help with this.

Consider whether your child may be being bullied. Or, is your child misinterpreting the actions and intentions of others as hostile when they are not?

Strategies for home

If your child starts to become reluctant to go to school then it is important to take action early.  Some of the following may help:

  • Encourage your child to communicate with you about the problem. Using visual supports may help. Ask your child to rate events or places at school on a scale from “not scary” to “very scary”. This may help you to see when and where the problems occur, and help build your child’s resilience. 
  • If you have an understanding of the reasons behind their reluctance, then share it with school staff.
  • Create a worry book for your child to record anxiety during the school day. If appropriate, read the book together as part of their evening routine. You can then help them deal with any worries by suggesting how to cope with them in future. 
  • Reward and praise any progress, such as completing something that they find difficult or putting on their school uniform and walking past school. 
  • Provide structure at home by using visual supports. 
  • Although difficult, try to work with them to help develop their social skills. 
  • Help your child to understand the benefits of education. 

Strategies to discuss with school

The help your child needs will depends upon the causes of their anxiety.

There may be a specific problem which requires immediate action from school.  For example, your child may be being bullied

Here are other triggers and strategies to consider: 
  • School environment.  Many children and young people with autism have sensory sensitivities. There are specific strategies that can help with this, such as a calm and quiet place, a suitable work space or wearing ear defenders.
  • Does your child need more support at school, or that which is more effective? They may need help with organisation, transition between lessons or some specialist input from a speech and language therapist to help them manage social complexities. 
  • Use the understanding you have of your child to identify coping strategies that can be used in school and discuss them with the person responsible for special educational needs (SEN) or additional support needs (ASN)This could be something like time out cards, stress scales or other interventions that are included in our teacher pack
  • Ask school if a member of staff that your child feels comfortable with could meet them at the school gate or from your car.
  • Your child may find it beneficial if they are given the opportunity to discuss their feelings at the end of each school day. Ask your child’s teacher or support assistant if they could go through the timetable with them and ask them to give a mark out of ten for each lesson. For those lessons they score low, ask them why. 
  • Suggest to school that they use your child’s interest to help them learn. Intense interests can be used to differentiate work so that it motivates your child. 
  • Think about ways that school can reward your child for small steps of achievement. 

When supporting your child to go back to school after a period of refusal, start off with them attending for an hour and build it up gradually. This is better than putting pressure on your child to attend for a whole day and them not coping.

Autism awareness

Ask school if they will consider organising autism awareness training for all staff, including break and lunch time support supervisors. 

It would also be helpful if school create opportunities for all pupils to develop an understanding of medical conditions, SEN or ASN and disabilities. This could be a school assembly where information on many additional needs can be presented, without highlighting a particular condition or pupil.

This will help others to view autism in a positive way and is likely to benefit everyone in the school community. It will especially help your child and other autistic children and young people at the school. 

The National Autistic Society have a worksheet for primary school children to help introduce them to a new class member with autism.  Our Full spectrum awareness toolkit helps secondary school pupils to understand autism.

Teachers working with autistic children and young people may find it helpful to sign up for our MyWorld resources.

What if this doesn’t resolve the problem?

If you feel that your child needs more support to help them reintegrate and progress at school then consider getting extra help for them in school.

If anxiety or other mental health conditions are contributing to your child’s difficulty with attending school, ask your GP to make a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).  They will have a team that includes psychiatry, clinical psychology, counselling and other therapies.

The school could involve the Education Welfare Officer, as their role is to work with schools, pupils and families to support regular school attendance.  

If your child’s school refusal continues then you may decide to choose a different school for your child or consider home education

Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)

If your child or young person has a diagnosis of PDA then talk to school about appropriate interventions. Those used for children and young people with autism or Asperger syndrome would need considerable adaptation to be successful with your child. 

The PDA Society have useful information for families and carers and educational and handling guidelines for education settings. 

You could also suggest that school staff read more about helping children with PDA at school.

Further help from the National Autistic Society

Our Education Rights Service can provide information, support and advice on educational provision and entitlements for children and young people with autism. 

Last reviewed: 23 March 2016.