Preparing for an autistic pupil’s return to school

Here we provide some suggestions for school leaders, teachers and teaching/classroom assistants to help prepare for and manage the transition back to school for autistic pupils, 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 priority groups (vulnerable children and the children of critical workers). Special schools are working towards a phased return without a focus on specific year groups.

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 pupils to go back to school after a break of over ten weeks.

Why do autistic pupils find change difficult?

Many autistic people prefer familiar routines and find unexpected change hard. The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place and autistic people often take comfort in familiar habits, so they know what is going to happen every day. Many autistic pupils have rigid thought processes and high levels of anxiety linked to the unknown. They may respond best to a consistent approach and this is likely to be interrupted during a transition period, such as returning to school after lockdown.

The sensory processing differences that many autistic pupils experience can also contribute to difficulties with transition. The pupil may quickly become overwhelmed with sensory stimuli once back in school.

Although some pupils may have found home schooling difficult, their families may have established a daily timetable, so the child knew what was going to happen and felt safe. The child may have even become entrenched in this new routine.

Autistic pupils may now feel anxious and distressed at the prospect of returning to the social and sensory world of school and also have fears about the coronavirus. Although there will be aspects of school which will have remained unchanged, there will be a vast array of new rules – protective measures to reduce the risks of COVID-19 spreading. It can be difficult for autistic pupils to adopt new rules once they have previously been taught the 'right' way to do something. What can be most difficult for autistic pupils is to have sudden, unexpected changes. Therefore, they are likely to cope better and gradually adapt if they can prepare for changes in advance.

How can I prepare autistic pupils for the transition back to school?

Start with the familiar

Anxiety can be linked to the unfamiliar. If possible, invite the autistic pupil with a parent into school to visit before it officially reopens. That way, the pupil can familiarise themselves with their environment again, see their teacher and get used to the layout of the school. They may feel reassured to know that some things have not changed. If a visit is not realistic, you could arrange a meeting (virtual or face-to-face) with the parent. If this is also not practical, you could take a few photos of key places in the school – a visual tour – and share these with the parent.

Introduce the changes in school

As well as reminding the pupil of the things about school that have not changed, you should also introduce the changes that have happened to keep children safe.

Some autistic pupils 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 teach these new rules, you may like to provide the parent a list of the new protective measures that will be in place. You could take photos of places in the school where new measures have been implemented, such as one-way corridors and share these with the parent.

The pupil 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. There are some examples of Social Stories™ in the Useful resources section below. Some changes that the Government has recommended for schools are given in the table below.

As most classes are being split to make groups with a maximum of 15 pupils, some groups are likely to be led either by a teacher or teaching/classroom assistant with whom an autistic pupil may be unfamiliar. If there are concerns about the pupil being able to build a positive relationship with the member of staff in what is likely to be a very stressful time for them, you might like to consider the pupil remaining in a group led by their previous class or form teacher, to give them some sense of continuity.

For those autistic pupils starting a new class, year group or a completely new school, you may find the information on Starting or changing school and Preparing for change useful.

Working together with the family

It is vital that teachers (or form or pastoral care teachers) have a good understanding of how autism affects each autistic pupil and knows what their individual needs are. Parents are the experts on their child. You may like to contact parents and ask them to create a

pupil profile or passport, which can be used to outline key facts about the pupil, 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, which could be shared with parents. By finding out the parents’ priorities for their child and the child’s individual needs, you can then put in place reasonable adjustments. These are positive steps the school must take to ensure 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). The duty to make reasonable adjustments is an anticipatory one and therefore it is essential that you think in advance about what changes an autistic pupil might require and have those ready before they return to school. There are some suggestions of reasonable adjustments that schools could make in light of the protective measures in the table below.

Preparing an autistic pupil 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. This is Government advice and not all schools will be adopting all of these exact changes. For information about Northern Ireland guidance click here. For information about Scotland guidance click here.

As every autistic pupil 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 autistic pupils in a way that they will understand (eg by using visual instructions or Social Stories™).

The Government’s advice for schools on protective measures to reduce risks of the spread of COVID-19  Possible impact of the changes on autistic pupils: potential positives (+) and negatives (-) about the changes  Reasonable adjustments that could be made  Reasons for the changes to be communicated with the pupil 
Classes split into smaller groups of up to 15 children

+ less social interaction

- the pupil may be in a group away from friend(s); may be in a group led by a teacher or assistant, with whom the pupil is unfamiliar

Place the pupil 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)

Arrange Zoom/Skype ‘meetings’ for the pupil to chat 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’)

+ the pupil 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

Put up arrows around the school to show direction to walk; lines down the middle of the corridor or a divider. Allow the pupil to leave class earlier than their peers 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 the pupil needs time-out of the room/hall allocate a safe space or alternative room
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

Use a pop-up tent outside for the pupil’s 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

Allow parent to collect all of their children at the same time. Allow parent to stand at a particular place to collect the pupil
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

Consider the child wearing a mask, bearing in mind 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; changes to the physical environment can be difficult

The pupil’s desk to 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 are to remain at their original school, arrange for the autistic pupil to be one of those.
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

Sit the pupil 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

Allocate the pupil 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

Allow the pupil to 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

Sit the pupil away/near the door/window (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 of water

- may not like wet/soapy hands or the smell of the soap

Allow the pupil to use a particular (unperfumed) 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 the pupil has particular toileting needs, give them 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

Provide the pupil with 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 the pupil that all these measures make it much safer for children to return to school.

What if the pupil doesn’t want to go back to school?

Despite the school’s and parents’ best efforts to prepare the pupil 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 the pupil

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?, which includes ‘Strategies to discuss with the school’.

What if the autistic pupil struggles with the new rules?

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 ….”

A risk assessment is therefore primarily a tool to overcome barriers to inclusion. 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. Some headteachers may have taken note of the following advice, even though their school may not be AP:

“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 the pupil is likely to face difficulties following the new protective measures and rules and consider that the risk of allowing the pupil back into school would be too high and decide to postpone their return. However, this could amount to exclusion and possible disability discrimination if the reason for this decision is linked to the pupil’s autism. Although safety is the priority in any school, by exploring what reasonable adjustments could be made for a disabled pupil, risks can be minimised and the pupil included.

Useful resources

Department for Education (DfE) (England) guidance:

Actions for educational and childcare settings to prepare for wider opening from 1 June 2020

Opening schools for more children and young people: initial planning framework for schools in England

Planning guide for primary schools

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

Planning guide for early years and childcare settings


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

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

Preparing for change - The National Autistic Society

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