Supporting the wellbeing of autistic pupils

How can you create a healthy school environment for pupils with autism? Sarah-Jane Critchley describes how to focus on their strengths, monitor wellbeing and manage common flashpoints

Author details

Sarah-Jane is a keynote speaker, consultant, coach and author who wrote ‘A Different Joy: The Parents’ Guide to Living Better with Autism, Dyslexia, ADHD and More...’ and contributor to two books on autistic girls. As Programme Manager of the...

While many autistic pupils flourish with the structure and challenge of being at school, for others, it can be extremely difficult to cope in that environment.

It does not have to be this way. Challenges can be overcome for most autistic pupils, given the right sort of adaptations even to a mainstream environment.

Talking to your autistic pupils to support wellbeing

Good school policies and a positive school ethos are important. What you do matters much more than what you say. Your autistic pupils need you to:

  • say what you mean
  • mean what you say
  • do what you say you are going to do.

The language of diagnosis means that your autistic pupils are likely to have been told by doctors, other children, sometimes other teachers and even their family that they are ‘disordered’ and ‘wrong’.  Different is NOT the same as wrong.

They are not a flawed and broken version of normal. They are complete people with the same job of learning how to be the best versions of themselves that every human being has. You can help them to flourish by helping them to accept themselves and grow into their strengths.

Why it matters

  • Supported well, autistic people can and do achieve amazing things.
  • We need people with diverse ways of thinking and strong focus to meet the challenges we face as a society.
  • Autistic people are more sensitive to things that affect pupils’ wellbeing.
  • Adaptations you make for autistic pupils help everyone, whether autistic or not.
  • You will have pupils who are autistic but may not have a diagnosis yet.
  • It will also support your staff who are autistic, dyslexic or have ADHD.
  • A lack of support has a strongly negative effect on wellbeing and tragically, autistic young people are twice as likely to consider suicide and have more suicide attempts than non-autistic young people.

How to tell if is going wrong

You will know that your autistic pupil is struggling because they will be showing distressed behaviour typical of stress and trauma. See examples below.

  • A parent or carer says they are stressed when they come home. This does not mean that there is a problem at home, and everything is fine at school. Often pupils will hold it all in until they are in a safe place when all the stress explodes. It is so common that it is called the 3 o’clock time bomb.
  • You are getting repeated incidences of ‘behaviour’ – this is a fight response.
  • They run away or walk out of school – this is a flight response.
  • They shut down and become unresponsive. Shutdowns are a more common response than meltdowns in autistic people.
  • A pupil is different to how they are usually.
    • Has their routine changed?
    • Are they different with other people?
    • Do they feel differently about their interests and hobbies?
    • Are they doing less healthy things than they usually do?
    • Are they looking after their hygiene and environment?
    • Are they able to make decisions?
    • How is their energy level?
    • Are they more anxious than normal?

Eight ways to create a healthy environment

There is so much that you can do in school that is within everyone’s reach and costs nothing to do.

  1. Recognise that each pupil is an individual, be curious about what school is like for them and work with their strengths to find what will help them.
  2. Use positive role models: there are many autistic people whose autistic strengths have led to their success. Greta Thunberg challenging the UN on climate change and Chris Packham on ‘Spring Watch’ for example.
  3. Use neurodiversity-positive fiction e.g., Chris Bonello’s Underdog series and Can You See Me by Libby Scott.
  4. Create an autism-friendly culture using the AET Good Autism Practice Guidance.
  5. Make sure all staff have autism training so that they know how to support your pupils.
  6. Ask your autistic pupils to conduct a sensory audit of the school and make all the adaptations you can.
  7. Look at behaviour through an autism lens to understand what the pupil did and why they might have done it.
  8. Build strong positive relationship with families using Gareth Morewood’s Parental Confidence Measure.

Talk about autistic strengths

There are so many, and will vary from person to person, but include the below. Use the below to help your autistic pupil find what they are good at.

Deep focus on an area of interest Great attention to detail Passion for accuracy
Strongly loyal Consistent and dependable Say what they mean and mean what they say
Hardworking Not distracted by social chit chat Highly empathetic
Enthusiastic sense of humour Superb developers of systems Creative
Artistic / musical Innovative High sensory sensitivity

Baselining wellbeing

All schools should be making use of student voice. Autistic pupils can always be relied on to tell you what is working and what isn’t for them! To do this effectively you will need to use a twin-track approach.

1. School-wide monitoring

This should form a part of your school self-evaluation, checked by the SLT and SEN governor and should include:

  • pupil surveys
  • feedback from the student council / parliament
  • bullying statistics (autistic pupils are disproportionately affected)
  • absence rates – whole school vs. autistic population
  • illness rates – whole school vs. autistic population
  • incident rates – internal and external exclusion.

2. Individual pupil wellbeing

  • Give each pupil a key member of staff that they choose to check in with at least weekly. (The relationship between them is essential here as the right person makes all the difference). It could be the form teacher, a SENCO, member of the nurture team, or their favourite TA or teacher, but the member of staff must be given some time to do this role.
  • Complete a sensory profile with each pupil, so that you can collaborate with them to understand and mitigate or remove sensory pain wherever possible.
  • Include wellbeing into parent consultations.
  • Baseline how they look and feel when they are ok using the Know Your Normal Toolkit, so that you can support before they get to crisis stage.

Use the joy of special interests

Most autistic people are deeply enthusiastic about specific things. Special interests are absolute gold because they can help a pupil to:

  • experience true joy in their life
  • calm down and self-regulate when upset
  • access learning through making it relevant to things they love
  • build good social relationships.

Manage common flashpoints in schools

  • When a routine changes (Christmas, new teacher, new school etc), prepare for periods of change.
  • Unstructured time makes autistic pupils feel unsafe. Lunchtime and breaktime clubs / activity choices make unstructured time easier to navigate.
  • Corridors and changing rooms are often unsupervised and places where bullying is most likely to happen.
  • Canteens are often loud, full of clashing food smells and social uncertainty – instead, offer a quiet place with a choice of eating partner.

Key points

  1. Your autistic pupils are the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ of school wellbeing. Get it right for them and you will help everyone in the school.
  2. Create a school culture that values difference and builds on strengths.
  3. Strong relationships with connections built on respect for the individual pupil and their family will help you to make a real.


Last Updated: 
04 Oct 2022