Some autistic children cannot attend school because they are unable to cope with the demands of school and the environment. This is sometimes referred to as school refusal, although some individuals feel this terminology implies that the child or young person has a choice when in fact they feel unable to attend. School absence or refusal can be ongoing 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 maintain school attendance or reintegrate the child or young person back into school.

Autistic children and young people can face additional pressure at school. For example they may:

  • Lack the complex social skills that are intuitive to others. They may struggle to establish and maintain friendships or they may experience bullying.
  • Have difficulty coping with the curriculum. This may be because they have difficulty processing information and understanding questions and text.
  • Struggle to cope with the demands of a school timetable due to difficulty with organisation and prioritising.
  • Experience sensory differences which can make it difficult to tolerate some aspects of the school environment such as noise, smells and lighting.
  • 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, and unstructured time, such as breaks and lunchtime, causes anxiety at school.
  • Experience difficult with a particular member of staff or subject.
  • Struggle with anxiety and find it hard to be apart from family, or away from the familiar routines of home.

Parents have a legal duty to educate their children which means they must ensure regular attendance. 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 a health professional. You may find that your GP is willing to provide this or you may need to approach another health professional, such as Child Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). 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

Explore what your child thinks about their experiences at school, for example ask how their day has been, but give closed options to avoid an ambiguous ‘OK’ response. Visual supports may help.

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. Your child may be showing signs of anxiety in school at particular times. Alternatively, your child may display different behaviour at home to that in school.  Often emotions remain bottled up until the end of the school day and released when they are at home where they feel fully loved and accepted.

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

Consider gender issues, for example autism may present differently in girls.

For children who do not use verbal or written communication, schools should consider:

  • the views of parents, carers and others who know them well
  • a behaviour diary
  • a home/school communication book.

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.
  • Identify strategies to regulate emotions and reduce stress, for example exercise, trampoline, visual stress scales such as a stress thermometer or traffic light system.
  • 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.
  • 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 subject to bullying.
 
Here are other triggers and strategies to consider:
  • School environment.  Many autistic children and young people have sensory sensitivities. There are specific strategies that can help with this, such as providing a calm and quiet place, a suitable work space or wearing ear defenders. They may need support from an occupational therapist to help identify and manage sensory issues.
  • Does your child need more, or different support at school? They may need help with transitioning between lessons, or may benefit from specialist input from a speech and language therapist to help them understand social situations.
  • 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 the school to make reasonable adjustments at the start and end of the school day,  for example being met at the school entrance by a member of staff that your child feels comfortable with, time to engage in their own hobby/interest, or letting them leave before other pupils.
  • Ask the school to consider extra breaks during the course of the school day. Some pupils may need to be redirected to a different activity, have a quick run outside, or retreat to a quieter area of the school.
  • 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 the child 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. 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 absence, it may help to start off on a part-time timetable, with them attending for a short period and build it up gradually. This can be 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 lunchtime support supervisors.

It would also be helpful if school creates 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, including autism and without highlighting any particular 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 has a worksheet for primary school children to help introduce them to a new autistic class member.  Our full spectrum awareness toolkit helps secondary school pupils understand autism.

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

Returning to school

Schools should try to identify and address sources of stress, aiming to reduce anxiety levels so the pupil can re-engage with their education by feeling safe in the classroom and accepted by those who support them.

Any period of transition, including returning to school, can cause anxiety so careful preparation will be needed to help the pupil manage this change.

Involve the pupil in the reintegration process and arrangements, including details that might seem trivial for example which room they will go to first, what time, how long for, what for and what happens next? A visual timetable may help.

Before the pupil can access learning, work may need to be done on their emotional well being, reducing stress and increasing self-confidence.

What if this doesn’t resolve the problem?

If you feel that your child needs more support to help them return to school and progress, 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 continues to struggle to attend school then you may decide that the current school is not the right environment to meet their needs, and 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 behaviour profile of pathological demand avoidance (PDA) then talk to school about appropriate interventions. Those used for autistic children and young people would need 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

School stress and anxiety – how it can lead to school refusal and impact on family life (PDF). Available to download at New teachers' resources to avoid excluding autistic pupils.

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

 
Last reviewed 31 January 2019