Supporting autistic children to return to school post-lockdown

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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The return to school after lockdown 3.0 could be challenging for students with autism. Drawing on experiences and lessons learned from the first national lockdown, Dr Pooky Knightsmith advises on how we can best support them

I have had a huge amount of interest in how we can prepare our autistic learners for the return to face-to-face school and ensure that they settle well once they are back.

I did a lot of work on this following lockdown one, so here I am going to share what worked last time so you can use it as a basis for might work for you this time.

Start with the positives

As we begin to consider the transition back to school, it is easy to look for the barriers, the worries and the negatives, but it can help to focus first on the positives. Doing this can help us to focus in on a child’s strengths and protective factors and use these to help guide our planning.

There are no end of things that might go onto this list but try to think of at least three that apply to the child you have in mind. Here are some ideas from other people facing similar challenges:

  • He has had a very settled time at home and will return up-to-date with his learning.
  • She is missing the routine of school.
  • He likes the reward and praise he gets at school.
  • School had become a very safe space for her and she misses it.
  • He misses Lego club!
  • Her communication skills have really improved during lockdown.
  • We have had a tough time at home but we have both learnt to emotionally regulate better.
  • I can be a better parent to him if I can have a break.
  • She misses being near other children.
  • He cannot wait to see his teacher.
  • She loves the school library and librarian and cannot wait to be back there.
  • He needs to practise his social skills, I am worried he will lose them.

Ask yourself: What are three positives about the return to school for the children you are supporting?

Why go back to school?

Starting with these positives and strengths, you can explore the reasons for returning to school and begin to frame it in a way that is child-centred. Consider what is in it for them and why might this feel like a positive to them. It may be that there are many worries, but if we are able to agree with a child some reasons why they might like to be able to return then we have made a really important first step.

It can help to spend a little time on this with the child and to explore it directly from their point of view, and to record what you come up with in a way that makes sense to them and can then be referred to by everyone.

This can form a key focus in the child-centred planning we will do. If this proves challenging, then as the adults around the child we can try to guide and support these ideas at first. As time goes on then it may be that they feel more able to add their voice – if and when they do, listen hard to what they have to say! Their motivations will always carry more weight than yours.

Explore what a ‘typical day’ will look like

Now we need to consider what school will actually look like when the child returns so that we can prepare them for it and begin to understand where the worries might be.

Useful exercises here can be to:

  • Work through a (new) typical day from the moment the child wakes up to the moment they go to bed.
  • Explore what will be the same and what will be different.
  • Use pictures, videos, social stories or play to explore what to expect.

It is important for school and the family to explore together what school will look and feel like when the child returns. Having a very clear understanding of what will stay the same will be deeply reassuring and will form solid building blocks for the child. Consider places, people and activities that might be the same.

Of course, some things will have changed and we will need to provide good support and planning to enable the child to manage these changes.

Ask yourself: What has stayed the same and what has changed?

Make child-centred plans with clear, realistic aims

Do not assume that the return to school for an autistic child should look exactly the same as for every other child. It may be necessary to consider a more phased or supported return than for other pupils. It is important for the school and the family to explore this and for the child to be involved with this planning as far as possible.

Creating a very simple plan around the return can help all involved. This can help structure planning in the lead up and gives everyone clear aims to work towards. Phrasing it in child-led language will help us ensure that the child is at the centre of the plan.

Set clear, realistic goals which can be revisited often and where success can be celebrated. These may be small and incremental and may start well before they return to school. For example, wearing their school uniform for an hour at home, or successfully managing the before school routine on a non-school day would both be worth celebrating for many children.

Ask yourself: What would be a good first goal to work towards?

Create a child-centred pupil profile/passport

One of the major concerns about the return to school is that it is possible that children may be taught or supported by different adults than the ones working with them prior to lockdown. For both the child and the supporting adults, it is important that the child’s profile is shared in a simple format so that adults are quickly aware of how best to support a child, warning signs to look out for, and simple strategies for supporting or de-escalating.

You may already have an existing pupil passport or profile that can be updated and adapted. If not, now might be a great time to write one. These work best when they are:

  • Agreed with the child and written/shared in a child-friendly format.
  • Simple and practical – one side of A4 or a small series of cards on a keychain should suffice.
  • Carried with the child and/or given to all relevant adults.
  • Updated as needed.
  • Shared between home and school.

You can create your own profile based on what is most important for the child concerned.

Ask yourself: Would a pupil passport be helpful? What should be included, how should it be shared and with whom?

What can be done now?

The more that we can make the unfamiliar feel concrete and more familiar to a child now, the better the chances of a successful return to school. Some things will feel unfamiliar because they are different or new, but it has been a while and for some children even the familiar will feel a little unfamiliar now and certainly very different from home, so do not assume that what was once known and familiar will still feel so.

Additionally, we need to think about whether there are any skills we need to support the child to develop or remember in order to aid the transition back to school. This will include refreshing their social skills and also introducing new ways of interacting following any new guidelines. These things can help:

  • Visiting the school prior to the return (or being given a live/recorded virtual tour).
  • Learning new ways of interacting. The family should be guided by school and practise at home.
  • Practising elements of the school day at home such as the morning routine, the school journey, wearing school clothes and focusing on learning tasks.
  • Becoming familiar with key staff through home or school visits or via video calls.
  • Starting a countdown to school focusing on the positives but giving space for worries each day.

Ask yourself: What are your next steps to enable the child you are supporting to succeed?

Conclusion: Prepare, Practise, Positives

It is likely that you will never feel completely ready, but using the simple steps of prepare–practise–positives you will stand the best possible chance of success.

Prepare: Plan ahead, name worries to tame them and create a clear plan.

Practise: Doing trials and test runs can help to build familiarity and increase the chances of success for both the children and the adult. Remember to practise what to do if things go wrong as well as working through the routines. For example, explore with your child what steps they can take to regulate their emotions if they being to feel anxious, worried or angry. How would they get appropriate support?

Positives: It is important to stop and reflect on all the things that go right. This can really help to build confidence. We need to learn from what goes less well too but by turning our conversation first to the positives we can build a cycle of positive reinforcement and help the child we are supporting to be aware of all the things they can do, rather than what they cannot.

This is a cycle and where new worries or issues arise we revisit the preparing, planning and hopefully before too long some new positives too.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. You can contact Pooky via and for her previous articles in Headteacher Update, visit

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