A free online resource developed to support the inclusion of autistic learners in Scottish Early Learning and Childcare settings, Primary and Secondary schools.

Senior Phase

Estimates tell us that around 1 in 100 children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As more learners stay on for the Senior phase of school, this suggests that we have many autistic children in the Senior phase of education. 


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Early recognition and intervention ensures that children can receive the most appropriate support and in turn benefit from the best outcomes and autistic learners in secondary schools may already have an identification of autism. However, for a variety of reasons some children and young people may not have an identification and one may not be sought. Irrespective of this, the practitioner will be working with the family to support a young person who appears to have social communication difficulties which may or may not lead to investigation for autism. 

Autistic learners present with a variety of strengths, difficulties and sometimes behaviour issues. For these young people the core symptoms of autism can impact on their anxiety level and subsequently how they are able to communicate and behave. However, with appropriate support and adaptation they can thrive in secondary school and will feel safer, less anxious and have an increased understanding of what is expected of them. This in turn will mean that the autistic learner is more likely to have increased attainment, improved engagement and is less likely to become anxious and stressed.

Senior Phase and Autism

The senior phase offers extensive opportunities for personalisation and choice for young people. This means providing pathways that help them experience activities to develop their personal achievements and gain qualifications appropriate to their needs and their career and future aspirations. That may well mean young people taking fewer qualifications, particularly at some levels, over their senior phase and that the curriculum design may look different from school to school. The flexibility which Curriculum for Excellence’s Senior phase should provide can be beneficial for autistic learners in terms of learning and supporting the development of their social and emotional skills. 

It is extremely important that autism is not perceived to be negative. Presenting autism as a ‘deficit model’ is not helpful nor representative. Autistic learners may be skilled at: 

  • Paying attention to detail
  • Following clear rules and 
  • Being honest.  

These strengths and abilities can be used to encourage engagement, and enable them to make their own, unique contribution within the secondary setting.

The Toolbox section on Understanding Autism provides a range of information. All autistic learners have impairments in social communication, social interaction, social imagination and a preference for routines. Many have sensory issues and a restricted pattern of behaviours. When planning to support a young person in the Senior phase of secondary school it is important that an understanding is developed of the way in which these factors affect the individual young person. The unique make-up of the school community will be an important consideration. For example:

  • Autistic learners with higher functioning autism may also have good or above average range of vocabulary. However, having a complex vocabulary does not mean that they will understand the same level of vocabulary, nor that they will necessarily understand the vocabulary that they are using.  
  • The environment of the classroom and ethos of the school can have a negative impact if they are not inclusive – the Professional Development section has information on a professional learning resource to support the inclusive classroom the ‘Framework for Inclusion: CIRCLE Secondary'
  • The size of the secondary school and range of social and learning opportunities. 

Autistic learners (especially when diagnosed in later childhood) may have had negative experiences in relation to school. These experiences will have decreased confidence, and self-esteem. Rebuilding self-esteem is an important step in addressing behaviours. Often autistic learners have a fear of failure, and so negative responses from staff within the school setting can increase the anxiety and subsequent negative behaviour.

Understanding, support and differentiation in teaching styles and approaches will be needed and shared between home and school to minimise difficulties the young people may have in accessing the curriculum and engaging with their peers. This will also provide positive opportunities to maximise the autistic learners’ areas of strengths, interests and motivation.  

The Introduction to BGE page has suggestions which will support autistic learners, practitioners and families – here are some which are focused on the Senior phase. 

  • Ensure Post-school transition planning and support begins timeously. See Post-school transitions page
  • Subject teachers should liaise with colleagues in pupil support/support for learning to find out about the learner’s profile, their supports and approaches – look at the communication passport or information the autistic learner has prepared for staff
  • Work in partnership with the family - share course material/outlines if appropriate 
  • Ensure all practitioners who work with the class have access to the appropriate information in order to support the learner
  • Ensure the autistic learner knows where to access support and a quiet space if required 
  • Ensure the autistic learner knows the routines of their classrooms
  • Ensure the autistic learner knows the routines of the school 
  • Be aware of the communication style the autistic learner needs
  • Keep routines consistent.
  • Ensure SQA Assessment arrangements are in place if required 
  • Use visual supports if appropriate 
  • Give plenty of warning about any change
  • Ensure the classrooms are inclusive environments 
  • Use visual cues (pictures or objects) to help communication and understanding
  • Use visual timetables 
  • Communicate with the autistic learner what they should do, not what they shouldn't
  • Work in partnership to identify triggers (the things which seem to cause strong reactions) and work out ways of reducing or removing them
  • Some situations will require additional planning in advance. For example, breaks and lunch times, trips, excursions HE and FE open day visit and outside learning
  • College course links 
  • Assemblies
  • School productions – shows and concerts.