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Parent ideas for autistic children struggling with school attendance

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

If your child is autistic, then they are more likely to have additional anxiety, social, communication and sensory processing difficulties. Consequently, school can be a difficult and overwhelming place for them to be if they are not in the right environment with teachers that fully understand them or have the right provision to meet needs. There will ALWAYS be an underlying reason why children feel unable to go to school. It's helpful to reframe your own narrative and understand that your child is 'unable to attend school' due to anxiety and mental health, they are not 'refusing'. It is not their fault that they may be struggling or may not be able to attend, it is not a choice.

Some signs your child is struggling at school

  • complaints of tummy / headaches

  • disrupted sleep

  • change of eating patterns

  • change in behaviour e.g.:-

  • meltdowns / shutdowns / extra hyper-activity /low mood / lethargy/ angry / aggressive / more 'needy' / mood swings / tearful

  • change to responses to sensory input

  • 'excuses' of why they don't want to go to school

  • change in friendships and socialising / play

  • withdrawal from social activities

It can help to write down their day and see if you notice any patterns as to when they are struggling.

“But they seem fine” – Autistic Masking

  • There may be a big difference between how they present at school and how they are when they are in their safe space at home with you.

  • This is often the result of 'autistic masking' when either consciously or subconsciously children (and adults) try to fit in with their peers.

  • If your child is masking, then their autistic needs and ways of regulating are not being met and long term this can cause further anxiety and potential mental health difficulties.

'Challenging behaviour' Efforts to try and engage in school may be more obvious for some children, they may be described as having 'challenging behaviour' - these children are also struggling.

  • Unable to able to fully engage in lessons

  • 'Disruptive' in class

  • Difficulty concentrating and doing work

  • Not able to regulate their sensory system

  • Difficulties when they play and interact with other children

If your child is described as having 'challenging behaviour', then their autistic needs and ways of regulating are not being met and long term this can cause further anxiety and potential mental health difficulties.

The environment needs to change

If this all sounds familiar, then it is a sign that your child needs support, and things need to change.

  • The people working with your child need to work collaboratively with you as parents to help support and meet your child's needs, you know your child best.

  • If children are happy and regulated and their needs are being met in school, they will be happier and more regulated at home too, it works both ways.

  • You cannot separate home and school - they need understanding and support in both settings

Collaborative Approach

All teachers and any other professional involved will want to do the best for your child, it is why they have trained for their job, everyone needs to be open and work together. If you as a parent feel like you are not being listened to, let people know. Everyone needs to be on the same page to support your child in the best way possible.

  • It is not a failure of parents to ask for help.

  • It is not a failure of teachers to admit they don't know something, but they will find out and signpost if needed

  • It is not the fault of the child if they are struggling or feel unable to attend school

  • Try and get a meeting with everyone to co-ordinate a plan and next steps

  • Not all schools can meet all needs - that is why we have the specialist provision and alternative pathways

Parents should not be blamed for their children being unable to attend school however, this can and does happen in some circumstances. Schools have a duty of care and responsibility to ensure all children registered get an education. This puts extra pressure on schools to focus on attendance but in reality, the focus needs to shift to supporting mental health.

Survival - fight / flight / freeze / fawn

  • Attendance for the sake of 'physically just getting to school' is not beneficial to anyone, it can lead to trauma responses and mental ill health.

  • Learning can only take place when children are ready to learn

  • Children need to be regulated in the right environment with people

  • Children need to feel safe with and have a positive relationship with key adults

  • If children are in survival - fight / flight / freeze/ fawn mode, they will not be able to fully engage and eventually could end up being unable to attend at all and experience autistic burnout

Feel like you have tried everything?

If you are at the crossroads of feeling like you have tried everything and do not know what more you can do then it could be worth looking at alternative routes for your child's education. Rather than trying to battle and make your child fit into a school that is not right for them it may be worth investigating different learning environments / settings / alternative provision where your child is able to thrive. For some children this will mean applying for an EHCP (Education Health Care Plan) to access that provision.

Getting an EHCP

To get the best outcome and provision, your child's school may suggest your child is assessed for an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP), however if you have concerns you can also apply yourselves as parents via your local council. It is a needs-based assessment, so you do not need any formal diagnosis to apply. There is further information about applying for an EHCP on the IPSEA website and model letters you can adapt.

Parent Support I have personally found the following websites and groups informative and supportive:

If you are an autistic parent, there are lots of webinars and resources on the Autistic Parents UK website that may be useful to have a look at for additional information and support for yourself.

Luke Beardon's work may also help you reframe and deepen your own understanding of Autism and your children's needs.

The Autistic Girls Network (it's not just for girls!) also produced this excellent resource of accommodations that you may want to consider for your autistic children in school. However, if so many accommodations are needed then it is worth questioning whether that school is the right setting for your child.

Download PDF • 247KB

Different Pathways

Look at your Local Authority website under their 'Local Offer' there are lots of different paths including:

  • Mainstream schools (with support via an EHCP if needed)

  • Resource bases

  • Special Educational Needs (SEN) settings

  • Alternative independent specialised settings that you may be able to apply to (with possible funding via your child's EHCP).

  • EOTAS (Education Other Than At School)

  • EHE (Elective Home Education)

  • Combination of various provision may work out best

There are a lot of different options to explore, even though your child may be struggling now it doesn't mean this will be forever! Time to recover If your child is severely struggling and has been having difficulties for a long time, or all of sudden things escalate quickly, they may need time to recover at home.

Whatever path you choose it doesn't need to be forever, if things don't work out you can make changes.

If you are struggling as a parent, get support for yourself, you can't pour from an empty cup, your well-being matters too. You can get through this! Autistic Burnout: A Family Guide is available here: Shop | Autisticrealms

**Article written from my lived experience as a parent and teacher. Knowledge gained through various personal research and neurodivergent communities.

Autistic Realms is a space for parent support and teacher guidance. I am not a medical professional or therapist.**

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