GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Let's not just see how it goes

Marion Rutherford and Lorna Johnston, National Autism Implementation Team (NAIT), discuss six supports for secondary pupils with autism

Schools have a duty to make reasonable adjustments and provide anticipatory support for pupils with additional support needs. For a young person with autism in the secondary environment we can anticipate that demands for processing information will increase and personal organisation will require maintenance of supports given in primary, together with additional supports relevant to the new setting. This approach should reduce disrupted expectations, overwhelming anxiety and distress which can manifest as unwelcome behaviour or disengagement.

Through extensive consultation with teachers, partners, autistic children and young people and their families, together with a review of research evidence and good practice guidance, we identified a wide range of individualised supports that are relevant to some autistic young people. There is a clear message from stakeholders that “waiting to see how it goes does not work”.

Six key anticipatory supports were found to be relevant for pupils with autism in secondary schools:

1. Two key adults:

There will be unplanned moments when the pupil and their parents need to talk to someone in school, to address or de-escalate an immediate challenge. If their trusted key adult is unavailable, there needs to be another predictable trusted person who is contactable. Having two people they know, and trust is in, is calming and reassuring.

2. An individual visual timetable:

Autistic people are likely to be living with a higher level of anxiety than neurotypical people. One of the main ways to reduce anxiety is to increase predictability. An effective way to do this is using individual visual timetables. The more anxious we are, the more we rely on a picture cue over written words. There are several ways the school timetable can be adapted, and you may wish to seek support from partner services (e.g. Speech and Language Therapy) to individualise these.

Developmental adaptations might include using symbols, referring to part-day, whole-day or week-long activities, adding detail about staffing and locations and colour-coding to indicate different buildings/departments. The important thing is that timetables are ‘trusted’ and accurately reflect expectations. When sharing an unexpected change (such as an outing or different teacher), adults can refer to the timetable.

3. A safe space:

Sometimes young people need to be away from people and demands. A safe space allows them to do this. This should be accessed by pupil choice. A safe space can be set up in many ways (e.g. a high-backed chair in a corner, a beanbag, a pop-up tent, or a screened-off area). The young person can be taught where it is and that they can go there at any time, without asking permission. They might need to practise going there. Once they are there, adults should stop talking to them and wait until they are ready to come out.

4. Movement breaks:

These support emotional regulation in many pupils and should be scheduled rather than being provided once the pupil has reached a heightened state. For some pupils, moving between classes does not meet their movement needs. They may need particular exercises (e.g. to access the lesson from different positions such as standing up or lying down) or to be given specific tasks or roles. Occupational Therapists can advise further on both safe spaces and movement breaks.

5. Practise and prepare:

Big and small changes can raise anxiety, so we need to practise and prepare for change. For some, the teacher’s haircut or perfume might be a notable change. For bigger changes and transitions, or bigger events such as school camp, set aside time for preparation and planning. Start planning for the transition to secondary school in P6. Try to introduce one change at a time, e.g. if you change the wall displays, keep the seating arrangement consistent. Use visual supports to ‘show’ what the change will mean.

6. Ask for help:

Secondary teachers are highly skilled but none of us are complete experts in autism. When we’ve met one person with autism, we’ve met one person with autism. Help to think about and plan support that might be available within the school, or through collaborative working with partners external to the school.

It is widely agreed that support in education is led by needs. These recommendations apply to children with a range of social communication needs, as well as those formally diagnosed.

And behaviour?

If you have an impairment of imagination, difficulty with social understanding, difficulty expressing your experiences and are utterly overwhelmed, then restorative practice is not recommended. Instead, adults can:

  • Reflect on why distressed behaviour occurred – was there an appropriate support plan in place and was it followed?
  • Reflect on whether all staff have a good understanding of the learner’s (sometimes subtle) language and communication support needs.
  • Reflect on whether the key anticipatory supports are in place and ask, is the young person’s day desirable and predictable enough to them?
  • Ask themselves what can they do to prevent the pupil feeling this way again.
  • Ask whether further risk management measures are needed.
  • Persist in building trust and acceptance, making school as predictable and desirable as possible.

The opposite of anxiety is trust and through embedding the six key anticipatory supports, teachers can build trust, reduce anxiety and enable all children and young people to be included, engaged and involved.


GTC Scotland has published research into the transition from secondary school into tertiary education for students with learning differences such as dyslexia and autism. Read it at