Preparing your child for the return to school

Here we provide some suggestions to help you prepare your child for the transition back to school, following the easing of some of the Government’s Covid-19 lockdown measures.

From 1 June, the Government is asking primary schools in England to welcome back children in Nursery, Reception, year 1 and year 6, alongside children of key workers and vulnerable pupils. Special schools are working towards a phased return without a focus on specific year groups. More information about the Government’s new guidance about going back to school in England can be found here.

We’re expecting a phased return to schools in Northern Ireland in September; in Scotland in August and in Wales not before July at the earliest.

We know it might be challenging for autistic children to go back to school after a break of over ten weeks.

Why do autistic pupils find change difficult?

Lots of autistic children and young people find unexpected change hard, and prefer familiar routines. Although some children may have found home schooling difficult, they may have become used to being at home, where they feel safe. They may feel anxious and distressed at the prospect of returning to the social and sensory world of school and also have fears about the coronavirus. We’ve set out some key things you can do to help your child with going back to school.

Start with the familiar

Anxiety can be linked to the unknown. If possible, request a visit to school before it officially reopens. That way, your child can familiarise themselves with their environment again, see their teacher and get used to the layout of the school again. They may feel reassured to know that some things have not changed. If a visit doesn’t work, you could ask for a meeting (virtual or face-to-face) with your child’s teacher, form or pastoral care teacher or the school’s SENCO or support for learning teacher. If this is not practical, you could ask for a member of staff to take a few photos of key places in the school.

Introduce the changes in school

As well as reminding your child of the things about school that have not changed, you should also introduce changes that have happened to keep children safe.
Some autistic children are likely to take longer to adjust to the new social distancing rules in school. If possible, rather than waiting for the return to school to learn about these changes, you may want to explain the new protective measures that will be in place to your child. Your child’s teacher might take photos of places in the school where new measures have been implemented, such as one-way corridors – or you could ask them to do this.

Your child may need explicit visual instructions and/or the use of Social Stories™, which are short descriptions of a particular situation and include specific information about what to expect and why.

Some changes that the Government has recommended for schools are given in the table below but remember, these may be different for each school. Check with your child’s school before telling your child about them.

When your child returns to school, they may have the same class teacher but as most classes are being split to help with social distancing, they may have a new teacher, or be in a group being led by a teaching or classroom assistant. 

Sharing information about your child

It is vital that your child’s teacher (or form or pastoral care teacher) has a good understanding of how autism affects your child, and knows what their individual needs are. If your child is changing class, information about them should be shared with the new teacher. However, you may prefer to contact your child’s teacher or form or pastoral care teacher directly to share your unique knowledge of your child.

It might be helpful to create a pupil profile or passport that you can use to outline key facts about your child, including their interests, needs, likes and dislikes and how they would like to be supported in school. There are two examples in the guide Working together with your child’s school. You might like to suggest a list of ‘reasonable adjustments’. These are changes to the way a school usually does things so that disabled pupils can fully participate in all aspects of school life. Autism is generally considered to be a disability under the Equality Act 2010 (or Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland). Schools need to think in advance about what reasonable adjustments your child might require and have those ready before they return to school.

How can I prepare my child for the changes when they return to school?

The table below lists some of the Government’s protective measures to reduce the risk of the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in schools. Not all schools will be adopting all of these exact changes – it’ll look a bit different in every school. For information about Northern Ireland guidance click here. For information about Scotland guidance click here.

It would be worth checking with the school what measures they will have in place. These may be communicated to parents by the school anyway, via email or on their website.

As every autistic child is different, what might be considered positives about these changes for one child, could be seen as negatives by another. The reason for all of these changes is to reduce the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus, but, in the right hand column of the table, we have suggested a more specific explanation for each measure. You can adapt this table for your own use and communicate it to your child in a way that they will understand (eg by using visual instructions or Social Stories™).

Changes that schools might make (protective measures to reduce risks)
Potential positives (+) and negatives (-) about the changes 

Questions to ask school

Reasons for the changes to be communicated with your child 
Classes split into smaller groups of up to 15 children + less social interaction
- your child may be in a group away from friend(s); may be in a group led by a teacher or assistant, with whom your child is unfamiliar
Could my child be placed in their teacher’s group and/or a group with a friend? To help with social distancing – to stop the virus from spreading
Half class groups (no more than 15 pupils) won’t mix with other children throughout the day
+ less social interaction
- may be in a group away from friend(s);
Can Zoom/Skype chats be arranged with a special friend in another group? To avoid larger groups of children mixing
One-way system around the school, or corridors divided in half (two-way ‘traffic’) + your child may like the social distancing: other children not entering their personal space
- may have little awareness of personal space, so may unconsciously approach others; may be frustrated if there is a more direct route to where they want to go
Are there arrows to show direction to walk? Are there lines down the middle of the corridor or a divider? Will the school consider a reasonable adjustment of allowing my child to leave class earlier? To keep children apart as they move through the school
Break and lunch-times staggered, or children eating lunch in their classrooms + less social interaction; fewer people in the lunch hall means less noise
- sensory issues: the smell of food lingering in classroom; not able to play with friend(s)
If my child needs time-out of the room/hall at lunchtime, is there a safe space or alternative room they can go? All children are not in one place or moving around the school at the same time to reduce the risk of the virus spreading
Some lessons may be outside + may prefer learning outside, not confined in classroom with sensory overload
- unfamiliar with outdoor lessons; risk of less structure to lessons and may find it difficult to differentiate between lesson time and break time
Alert teacher if your child is likely to find this difficult and suggest reasonable adjustments (eg a pop-up tent for their use – a safe place) The virus is less likely to spread in the open air
Stagger drop-off and collection times for parents at the start and end of day + may reduce feeling of chaos and bewilderment as crowds of adults and children arrive and disperse
- may have to wait to collect older/younger sibling
Can I collect both my children at the same time? Can I stand at a particular place to collect my child? To minimise adult-to-adult and child-to-child contact
Increased cleaning around the school and classrooms less cluttered + may prefer a tidier, cleaner environment
- sensory issues: smell of cleaning products
Can my child wear a mask? (NB The Government's guidance: Face coverings should not be worn in any circumstance by those who may not be able to handle them as directed (for example, young children, or those with special educational needs or disabilities) as it may inadvertently increase the risk of transmission.) Cleaning gets rid of the virus; fewer things in the classroom means less chance of touching something with the virus on
Classroom layout different – increased spaces between desks + less social interaction; may be familiar with layout from practice tests/exams
- may be sitting in a different part of the classroom causing anxiety
Can my child’s desk be in the same place in the classroom as before lockdown? Less chance of children touching each other and spreading the virus
If a school cannot achieve small groups due to lack of available rooms or staff, children might need to attend a nearby school + may prefer the new environment and facilities
- fear of the unknown and unfamiliar setting can cause anxiety; different travel routes to new school
If some children remaining at their original school, can my child be one of those? (if not see, Starting or changing school) To reduce the number of children in a class to avoid children mixing
No more whole school assemblies + may prefer smaller assemblies
- may no longer feel a part of a school community; may find sitting in any assembly difficult
Can my child sit at the end of the row so that they can be supported or leave if feeling overwhelmed? To reduce the number of children in the hall in close proximity
Play equipment will not be shared + may prefer having one object to play with and not have to share it;
- may want to play with something another child has
Can my child be allocated a particular piece of play equipment for their own use? The virus can be spread by touching the same toy that someone else, who has the virus, has touched
No soft toys and furnishings and toys with intricate parts + may prefer a less cluttered environment
- may miss a favourite toy
 As above Hard to clean soft toys and toys with intricate parts
A group of children use the same classroom or area throughout the day; sitting at same desk all day

+ may prefer the familiarity of being in the same place
- may need movement breaks

Can my child have (extra) movement breaks? To stop the spread of the virus by children sharing classrooms and desks
Classroom doors propped open, where safe to do so (bearing in mind fire safety and safeguarding) + may reduce sensory overload
- may prefer doors and windows closed
Can my child sit away/near the door (depending on preference)? To limit use of door handles and aid ventilation
More frequent washing of hands + may find it reassuring that they are keeping the virus away; may enjoy the sensory stimuli of water
- may not like wet/soapy hands or the smell of the soap
Can my child use a particular hand sanitiser instead? Clean hands don’t have the virus on
Limiting the number of children or young people who use the toilet facilities at one time + less social interaction
- may need to suddenly go to the toilet
If you child has particular toileting needs, ask if they can have priority when visiting the toilet To ensure that toilets do not become crowded
There may be a new timetable – fewer subjects being taught + fewer demands
- may not be learning favourite subject
Can my child have a visual timetable? Some of the new measures (above) to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19 are likely to use more of the school day – less time available for the curriculum; Teachers may not be available due to self-isolation etc.

Reassure your child that all these measures make it much safer for children to return to school.

What if my child doesn’t want to go back to school?

Despite your best efforts to prepare your child for the transition back to school and to reassure them that it is safe, some autistic children may find the prospect almost unbearable, which can lead to ‘school refusal’. This may not be a case of your child simply being unwilling to go in to school, but actually feeling unable to tolerate school. See What can I do if my child won’t go to school?

What if the school refuses to allow my child to return to school?

Every school must carry out a risk assessment before it reopens to show that it has done all that it reasonably can be expected to do to minimise the spread of the coronavirus.

The Department for Education (England) guidance says:

“Risk assessments may prove useful when planning how best to support the return of individual children ….”

However, a risk assessment should be used primarily as a tool to overcome barriers to inclusion, rather than a way of justifying exclusion.

Further Government’s guidance includes a section on ‘What does implementing protective measures look like in alternative provision (AP)?’ Alternative provision (AP) includes education arranged by schools or local authorities for excluded pupils. Although your child’s school may not be AP, the headteacher may have taken note of the following advice:

“Settings may need to carry out a risk assessment, if it is deemed that a child or young person may not be able to follow instructions, to determine what mitigations need to be put in place and whether, in rare circumstances, they should stay at home.”

The headteacher may feel that your child is likely to face difficulties following the new protective measures and rules and consider that the risk of allowing your child back into school would be too high and decide to effectively exclude them. However, this could amount to disability discrimination if the reason for this decision is linked to your child’s autism. Safety issues must not be used inappropriately to avoid making reasonable adjustments. Schools should avoid making uninformed assumptions about the risks that your child’s presence in the school could have. The Department for Education (England) statutory guidance on exclusion states:

“… it would be unlawful to exclude a pupil simply because they have additional needs or a disability that the school feels it is unable to meet”

For more information and advice please contact the NAS School Exclusions Service if you live in England and the Education Right Service if you live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Useful resources

Social Stories™ - The National Autistic Society

‘School is opening’ Social Stories™
- London Grid for Learning 

Social story: My name is coronavirus (in multiple languages) - Mindheart

Successful Social Stories™ for Young Children with Autism: Growing Up with Social Stories™ - Dr Siobhan Timmins. Foreword by Carol Gray (Jessica Kingsley publishers)

What can I do if my child won’t go to school?
 - The National Autistic Society

Starting or changing school
 - The National Autistic Society

Department for Education (England) guidance:

Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings.

Supporting children and young people with SEND as schools and colleges prepare for wider opening

This resource was produced by The National Autistic Society for The Autism Education Trust with funding from The Department for Education.