Points to consider:
- Autistic people’s brains are ‘wired’ differently from most other people’s – affecting the way that they process information. This is especially so when it comes to information received by their senses (e.g. sound, vision, touch), communication and social relationships. They often have a real need to know what to expect but difficulty in working this out. They also tend to have strong, deep interests
- It can be possible for autistic people to thrive in school. They may appreciate the predictability of the routine. They may get opportunities to nurture their special interests. They might achieve well academically. They may even enjoy friendships and be well understood and supported by teachers
- However, the school environment and everything that occurs in the school day is designed to meet the needs of neurotypical majority. It does not consider the sensory and social needs – or thinking styles – of autistic people
- Teachers are often busy and working under pressure. They can feel too busy to make sure they are supporting autistic students’ individual needs.
- Unfortunately for many autistic children, the school set-up is not ideal and can often cause stress in many ways
Common school related problems for autistic children
It is important to bear in mind that every autistic child is different and will have different challenges and different strengths, however some of the most common school related problems for autistic children include:
- They may fall behind with their learning (This may be directly due to autism related difficulties. It may also be because of additional difficulties that are common for autistic children, such as slow information processing speed, ADHD, dyslexia)
- They may struggle to make and keep friendships
- They are more likely than neurotypical people to identify as LGBTQIA+. This means they are more likely to be gay and/or to identify with a gender that is different from the gender that is on their birth certificate
- They may look and sound different compared to others. This can be due to differences in the way they walk, talk, behave, dress
- They can be prone to being bullied. This can be due to differences in their communication, appearance, voice, interests, gender or sexuality
- They may struggle to get their basic needs met – such as eating, drinking, going to the loo
- Their behaviour may be seen as challenging or even defiant, obstructive and deliberate – when in fact the behaviour is caused by stress that the autistic person would much rather avoid if they could
- ‘Challenging behaviour’ may lead to negative consequences such as detention or isolation. This can lead to a vicious circle of yet more stress and more ‘challenging behaviour’
- Some autistic children might manage to do well with their learning and even with friendships – but this will often take a lot of effort and can be exhausting
- Many autistic people do not wish to draw attention to themselves and may ‘mask’ – again, this is often exhausting
- Dealing with school related stresses, plus the efforts of masking – on top of learning tasks – means that many autistic children are exhausted when they get home
- Once home, many autistic children feel safe enough to relax and stop trying so hard. This can lead to the ‘coke bottle effect’ where they may release pent up frustrations on those they know, trust and love
- Energy for homework may be limited and many autistic children struggle to focus on school work at home. This is probably in part because they associate school work with the school environment and being flexible about this is very difficult and, without a class teacher to prompt and keep them on task, focus and executive function problems make it difficult to start, stay focused and finish tasks.
- Many autistic children have times when going to school feels too hard to do. This is sometimes referred to as school refusal or school avoidance
Finding out and sharing information with school
Communicating well with your child’s school can help to get your child the support that best meets their individual needs.
Before communicating with school, it will help if you know about:
- your child’s difficulties, needs and strengths
- common challenges that autistic children experience in school
- strategies that can help autistic students
The following articles talk about school-related challenges autistic people can face – and offer ideas for problem-solving. They are guides for parents and carers of autistic children in primary school and secondary school.
If you think your child might be autistic – but they have not yet been assessed, you may also find these articles useful. You may also find it helpful to share these articles with school staff
Autistic young people in school, college or university may also find these articles useful when thinking about how to advocate for themselves.
Walk in my Shoes
A short video about an autistic teenager’s school related anxiety based on an original narrative by Erin Davison whose wishes for this animation are:
- To demonstrate to other young people who have had the same experience through school that they are not alone
- To help school staff understand what an autistic young person is experiencing at school and the impact of those experiences both at school and when they get home
- To raise awareness across the general public, of what a day at school can be like for an autistic young person