Returning to School

For information on dates for schools re-opening:

Click here for ROI: Back to School 

Click here for NI: Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice on schools

Many of the strategies discussed in other sections of this resource can be applied in this instance, although they may need adapted to ensure they are specific and unique to the person diagnosed with autism.

Returning to school after a period of social distancing and self-isolation is significant as it involves a change to recently established routines.  The parent or professional must also remember that children who continued to attend school in small groups for childcare reasons, will also require support to manage the changes associated returning for formal education reasons.  The changes may include larger groups of children as well as increased social, communicative and sensory demands.   

There are many strategies that parents and professionals can implement to support this significant change with preparation being central.

Social Narratives

A social narrative also referred to as a social story, is a method of communication between a parent or professional and the child or young person diagnosed with autism.  They are used to clearly communicate information about a context, skill or concept in a way that is meaningful to the child or young person with autism. The social narrative provides clarity and predictability and subsequently reduces anxiety and improves the likelihood of the child or young person being able to cope in different contexts and experiences.

A social narrative can be created and implemented to outline what will happen when the child or young person returns to school post COVID-19 lockdown.  This will be different to them returning to school after an annual or more typical break from school. 

Each school will apply Public Health guidance uniquely, therefore it will be important for the parent or professional to find out and include as much detail as possible in the social narrative as this will help prepare the child or young person with autism for the changes in school.  Examples of changes post COVID-19 lockdown may be a lesser number of pupils in the classroom at any time, adults in the school may wear PPE, children might attend for two days per week or only on alternate weeks, and students may need to adhere to social distancing guidance when playing and interacting with friends in school.

It may be helpful to include in the social narrative prior positive experiences in school as this might help the child or young person with autism connect and associate the return to school as positive.  Examples of prior positive experiences might include taking part in a preferred activity or spending time with a friend.

Click here for further information on Social Stories. 
Click here to view PowerPoint called Returning to School Personalised
Click here for blank template called Returning to School

Transition Booklet

A Transition booklet can be used to remind and re-familiarise the child or young person about people in school who can help them and also to remind them about aspects of the school day.  The booklet will need to be tailored to ensure it is specific to each child or young person’s circumstances. 

Click here for an example of a Transition Booklet

For younger children, the Transition Booklet could contain information on who their teacher will be, the different areas of the school they will use, where their coat peg is located, what toilets they will use, where they will eat lunch etc. 

For older students, a Transition Booklet might include a photograph of their Form Class, their Form Teacher, each subject teacher, where they will eat lunch etc. 

Incorporating photographs provides the child or young person with permanent visual information that can be referred to at any time to help ease the return back into school.


A calendar can be used to communicate when the child or young person will return to school.  A simple picture can be placed on each day indicating whether the child or young person will be learning in school or at home.   

The calendar will also enable the child or young person to see the date they return to school.  Days can be stroked off on the calendar as the transition approaches.

Click to view 2020 Calendar
Click to view Calendar with Home & School symbols

Re-establishing Positive Routines

It is likely that some daily routines adhered to prior to COVID-19 lockdown may have lapsed or eased during the lockdown period.   For example, the child or young person may be getting up later, wearing preferred clothing and eating breakfast later.  Visual schedules can be used to re-establish the routine required to prepare the child or young person for returning to school.  Establishing  a bedtime and morning routine well in advance of the first day back to school  may prove helpful in ensuring the child or young person is accustomed to the re-established routine whereby they go to bed earlier, get up earlier, shower or wash before dressing and having their breakfast before an identified time.  By re-establishing these routines before the transition back to school means the school morning should run more smoothly and allow the child or young person to arrive at school calm and regulated.

Daily schedules, part day or full day, are used to inform the child or young person about the activities they will do throughout the day or part of the day. Click here for Types of Schedules. 

The format used to present the daily schedule should match each child or young person’s level of understanding.  For example,

  • For the child or young person who finds it difficult to understand that a symbol or line drawing represents a real-life event, an object of reference should be used. 
  • Other children and young people may understand just symbols or symbols supported by a word.  Click here for an example of a daily schedule presented using symbol and word.
  • Emerging or fluent readers might understand a written daily schedule where each word is stroked or ticked off when an activity has been completed. 

Click here further information on how to use visual support strategies.

Travel Arrangements

It is likely that transport arrangements may change due to social distancing requirements.  As a result, buses may not transport the same children to school or parents may be asked to transport their children.  It is important that these changes are explained to children and young people in advance of their first journey to ensure they are prepared for the change.

It might be useful for some children or young people with autism to practice the journey to school before the first morning of returning to school.  This could be rehearsed on several occasions to establish a routine before the return to school date. 

For children travelling by taxi or bus, it would be helpful to prepare a social narrative indicating who the bus or taxi driver, escort will be, and the other children that will be travelling in the taxi or on the bus.  It may also be helpful to go on a short trip on a bus or in a taxi to a preferred location to familiarise children with travelling to school these ways.

Click here for example of social narrative called When My Transport to School Changes

Preparing for the Transition Back to School

During lockdown some children did have contact with their teacher and school for childcare reason, some may not.  School staff should prioritise re-establishing contact with their autistic students before they are due back into school.  Re-establishing contact might involve writing a note to the student to say you are looking forward to seeing them again.  It might involve sending a card or video message or contacting the child or young person via a social media or video conferencing platform with parental supervision. 

Students Who Attended School Throughout Lockdown 

The autistic students and young people who attended school throughout lockdown would have been placed in smaller class groups therefore some may find it difficult and daunting to adjust to reintegrating into a larger class size, return to learning in school, seeing adults carry out different roles as well as understanding the new complex social rules that must be adhere to.  Break and lunch time may prove particularly challenging given the increase in structure and changes due to social distancing, therefore it may be beneficial to plan break and lunch time activities in advance taking these factors in to account.  Games such as hopscotch, rounders, completing a sensory circuit etc. may help to provide a level of structure and predictability, whilst also enabling a degree of social distancing. Structuring the environment and visual supports should be used to communicate information such as where the games are to be played and where children or young people should stand in relation to each other.   

Orientation Sessions

All children and young people with autism would benefit from accessing a series of orientation sessions where they can visit their school and class teacher, preferably when the environment is quiet, or a small number of people are around.  This should facilitate a more positive first experience or returning to school without having to manage sensory and social demands associated with larger numbers of people.  The visits might include visiting relevant areas of the school, becoming familiar with their classroom, cloakroom etc. and perhaps engaging in a preferred activity to ensure a number of positive experiences before returning to school alongside peers.

School Uniform

Some children can find wearing a school uniform challenging due to their sensory needs and preferences.  A gradual approach can be used to reintroduce a school uniform before returning to school.  For example, a parent could leave the uniform sitting in the child or young persons’s bedroom for a period of time before asking them to try on some of the uniform items of clothing.

Visual support strategies can be used to help children and young people organise and sequence dressing in the morning. For children and young people who find it difficult to understand words and symbols the use of objects can help them organise clothing items and the sequence for getting dressed.   Click here to view a Dressing System using Objects.  Alternative ways of presenting this activity system includes symbol and word or word only. 

Click here for an example of Getting Dressed Visual Support for Teenage Boy
Click here for an example of Getting Dressed Visual Support for Teenage Girl
Click here for an example of Getting Dressed Visual Support for Younger Boy
Click here for an example of Getting Dressed Visual Support for Younger Girl

Packing a Schoolbag

Checklists can be used to support the child or young person pack their schoolbag or P.E. kit bag independently. This skill can be practised in advance so that when the return to school date arrives, the evening and morning routine runs as smoothly as possible. 

Click here for example of Packing Schoolbag Checklist (symbol)
Click here for visual of Packing Schoolbag Checklist (tick-off)
Click here for example of Getting Ready For or Going Home From School Checklist
Click here to view video called Packing A Schoolbag

Practising these skills in advance of returning to school can be helpful for the child or young person and should occur gradually over time at a rate that is appropriate to the individual. Skill development could be mapped out on a calendar or timeline in conjunction with school staff.

Home School Communication

Communication between home and school staff will be crucial in ensuring a successful transition back to school.  School staff should gather information from parents before the transition occurs, for example, finding out how the child or young person has coped during their time at home, any changes in their presentations, any sensory difficulties, their level of anxiety etc.  Information can be shared regarding strategies that are effective.  Motivators and interests may be helpful in supporting the young person on their return to school. 

Communication Passports can prove useful in gathering relevant information and could be completed with a parent at home, as part of the transition process. 

Once back at school, a home school communication system, or Home-School Diary will be crucial in monitoring how a pupil is coping with the transition.  Strategies or approaches can be implemented in accordance with this.

Click here for example of Communication Passport
Click here for example 1 of Home School Diary
Click here for example 2 of Home School Diary

School Staff

In addition to planning and preparing for the transition back to school in partnership with home, school staff will need to carefully plan and prepare for the autistic students first few days and weeks back in school.  Any resources required should be prepared in advance so they are available from the moment the autistic student returns to school, for example, schedules, quiet areas in the classroom or school, Break Cards and other visuals to support communication.

Click here for Types of Schedules
Click here for examples of Break Cards
Click here for video on card for requesting breaks
Click here for video on Creating a Calm Area

Demands by school staff should be kept to a minimum and increased gradually when the autistic student is ready. Access to preferred and motivating activities would help the autistic student view their return to school as a pleasurable positive experience. 

Priority should be given to planning for a smooth, successful transition back to school to facilitate a positive experience for the child or young person with autism.

Be Flexible

It may be necessary to be flexible regarding planned activities to allow time and space to prioritise children and young people’s emotional well-being and sense of safety and security.  As many autistic students are likely to feel anxious on their return to school it would be helpful to incorporate activities to promote emotional well-being such as relaxation activities, yoga, using circle time to discuss how pupils are feeling or establishing a calm corner in the classroom. Making a personalised calm kit, also called a Stress Kit, with the child or young person which can be based on their special interest is also recommended.

Click here for examples of Star Breathing visuals
Click here for examples of Relaxation Breathing visuals 
Click here for images of Calm Areas at Home and in School
Click here for video on Creating A Stress Kit

A Suggested Curriculum – The Recovery Curriculum

Professor Barry Carpenter refers to the ‘Recovery Curriculum’ and the elements that will facilitate a more successful transition back to school.  In this article, Prof. Carpenter explains the importance of adapting the curriculum during the transition back to school to ensure children and young people’s mental health and well-being are prioritised. Click here to read the article called A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic.

Communicate Emotions

Adults in school should ensure that their autistic student’s emotional reactions are recognised, understood and supported.  Adults can act as role models by sharing how they feel and modelling the use of strategies to manage different emotions.

Autistic pupils should be encouraged to communicate their feelings, for example, showing a particular facial expression to an adult, writing down how they feel or using colours to represent their emotions if verbally communicating emotions is challenging for them.

The Incredible 5-Point Scale is a visual strategy often used by parents and professionals to support children and young people with autism communicate their emotions using five levels represented visually.  To access further information on The Incredible 5-Point Scale and how to use it please click here.

Emoji’s are often used when teaching a child or young person about emotions.  Please remember these may be difficult for a child or young person with autism to relate to therefore the parent or professional should tailor teaching resources to the needs of the child or young person.

Click here for an example of Feelings Chart Using Emojis
Click here for 5 Point Scale – various designs

It may be useful to identify a period of time, perhaps towards the end of the school day, where any difficulties the child or young person experienced can be discussed. Click here for Worry Time

Managing Anxiety for Autistic Students

When autistic children and young adults experience a challenging situation such as a change they can experience stress and anxiety.  Feeling highly stressed and anxious can impact on the child or young person’s behaviour.  For example, some might appear angry, or may engage in more repetitive behaviour or become more rigid in their thoughts and actions; some autistic students may appear to regress, whilst others may withdraw or refuse to engage in activities not of their choosing. For further information on Indicators of Anxiety click here, for Anxiety Management Strategies click here.

It is important to acknowledge the root of these behaviours and manage situations accordingly.  For example, reducing anxiety by using a visual schedule to communicate that a transition to a new environment or activity is imminent, by reducing demands as the time for the transition approaches, and teaching the child or young person with autism emotional literacy so they can recognise and respond when they start to feel dysregulated.  

For more information Positive Behaviour Support strategies click here.

Some children and young people will respond best to practical strategies aimed at reducing the physical response to anxiety on the body, for example, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, deep breathing, physical movement, or deep pressure activities. Visual supports can be used to prompt the sequence of actions used to respond and manage difficult feelings.  The child or young person’s special interest can be used to good effect when preparing visual supports as the use of these can increase engagement. 

Some children and young people with autism can be introduced to cognitive strategies to help them manage anxiety, for example, identifying unhelpful thoughts, understanding the impact of these on their feelings and behaviour, and being supported to change unhelpful thoughts to helpful thoughts such as identifying positive self-statements and mantras. Click here to read Using Cognitive Strategies 

Managing Sensory Input for Student With Autism

A student’s sensory differences can become heightened when they are experiencing change which causes uncertainty and anxiety to increase.  The child or young person may therefore be more sensitive than usual to sensory stimuli in the environment.  It is advisable to bring student’s into school on a phased basis to minimise the sensory stimulation associated with larger numbers of children, such as increased noise and movement etc.  This will enable the school staff to manage sensory stimuli to establish a low arousal environment.

School staff may wish to evaluate the sensory demands of the environment.  The Autism Education Trust created tools for auditing the sensory demands of the school environment and the Centre provide strategies on how to reduce stimuli and minimise exposure to sensory triggers.

Click here to view a Sensory Audit for Schools and Classroom
Click here to view Sensory Strategies for All
Click here to view the Centre’s Sensory Processing Resource