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Challenges at school

School life can pose many different challenges for autistic pupils to navigate. We outline a few here along with tips for support that families and professionals can provide to help a child manage and overcome them.

Creating the right environment and providing the right support helps to ensure that their educational experience is a positive one which empowers them to thrive at school.


Changes to routine

Much of school life is based around specific routines. Sometimes significant changes or disruptions occur to these routines that pupils don’t get prior notice of. This could be in the form of substitute teachers, the school bus being late, or timetables altering for a special event. Not to mention the major changes in routine that come every few weeks with the school holidays.

Autistic children can find changes to routine difficult. Addressing change as early as possible can help ease anxiety and make the transition smoother. Visual aids are a great tool to help with this. You can find more information on routine and planning for change in our understanding behaviour section. Or by watching our Lunch and Learn on Managing change: transitions big and small.



Tests and exams can be difficult for autistic learners for a number of reasons:

  • The pressure of exams can cause anxiety
  • Exams bring a change in routine and working environment. Exam halls often have different lighting, sounds, smells and people compared to a regular classroom; and exam conditions, such as remaining silent, can also pose challenges
  • Focus can be difficult particularly given the potentially distracting sensory input mentioned above

There are a range of strategies to support autistic pupils with exams. From making sure pupils are prepared early to techniques during the exams themselves:

  • Use social stories. As early as possible, introduce a social story that clearly explains what is going to happen, where and when
  • Have a clear timetable visible for upcoming exams
  • Build up gradually to the exams. If taking the whole exam in one sitting is causing anxiety, first try practising one or two questions. Then move up to three or four, and so on, until confident
  • Encourage taking short breaks during the exam to reset and refocus
  • Work on relaxation techniques during the build up to exams. This will be different for each person. It could be things like breathing exercises, music, fidget toys etc.

For pupils that find exams particularly challenging, additional support can be provided. This might be in the form of extra time, a separate room, rest breaks or a reader to name a few. These should be discussed with the school in advance of exam periods. Schools all have an Exam policy and SEND Information Reports which will contain information on exams and access arrangements.



Autistic children are often more vulnerable to bullying. This can lead to children feeling isolated, particularly if they find it challenging to communicate their feelings.

It is a worrying time for a parent if you think that your child is being bullied. Changes in behaviour such as avoiding certain spaces or pupils, being more withdrawn or acting out can all be signs of bullying. It is important to talk with your child regularly about what’s happening at school. If they don’t want to do this face-to-face you could try keeping a diary or writing what happened down. You could also use Zones of Regulation, taking mats or other methods used by the child to communicate their feelings.

Every school has a Behaviour Policy and sometimes an Anti-Bullying Policy in place which lays out their procedure for dealing with bullying. If needed, you can speak to the teachers at your child’s school about the incidents and a plan can be put in place.

If your child is lacking self-confidence because of bullying concerns, local social groups can be a good way to build self-esteem. Visit our autism services directory to find groups in your area.


Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA)

School refusal or persistent absence are other terms for EBSA. The underlying feature is a child being unable to go to school due to emotional or wellbeing factors. This may be caused by the school environment, or it may be a combination of some of the issues listed above. The end result is a child at home, not accessing education.

In these situations, a full assessment needs to be carried out on the environmental factors that are impacting the individual. This might be social problems, issues with the classroom setting or staff support. After this, adjustments in the school and home environments can be put in place to support the learner back into education.


If you have concerns over EBSA or any other issues mentioned in this page, get in touch to see how BeyondAutism could support you.

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