Unstructured times are the worst!


Some simple ideas to help pupils with autism during break and transition times at school.

Within a school environment, many strategies are in place to support students on the autistic spectrum. They tend to focus on key areas of difficulty around social interaction, communication, thought, imagination and sensory stimulation. However, when unstructured times come along, such as breaks, lunches and lesson change-overs, routine and structure can be quickly forgotten, dramatically exacerbating the anxiety and stress of students with autism.

During these challenging times, a range of difficulties can occur, one of the most frequent and upsetting being sensory overload. Break times mean a dramatic increase in the number of pupils, as well as a lot of new colours and smells, Pupils often describe the noise during breaks and lunches as being like having lots of radio stations playing at once and not being able to tune in to a single one.

There are, though, some simple strategies and techniques that can help alleviate anxiety and stress during  these unstructured times. The training and education of pupils is very important here; by helping pupils to understand the issues that their peers with autism might face you can enable them to be more understanding and considerate.

Providing some structure for break time is a fairly easy fix. Having a designated quiet area for students with sensory overload can help, as can planned games that are organised by staff members or peer mentors. Another interesting activity is the challenge bag; this is a set of cards with challenges on to allow students to work independently or in groups. The challenges should ideally involve both physical and academic challenges. For example, who can do the most star jumps in one minute? How many items beginning with the letter B can you name?

Working with families

Effective communication between home and school is important when considering the challenges of unstructured times; parents and school staff can share the strategies and techniques that work and, more importantly, don’t work for them, in order to make these times more manageable and enjoyable for pupils. Being able to discuss possible triggers for anxiety or meltdown can facilitate a preventative approach that is beneficial for all concerned.

Additional difficulties that need to be addressed centre around the unwritten social demands and rules that neurotypical students seemingly know and understand automatically. This can cause a lot of anxiety for those on the spectrum. Who should they speak to? How close should they stand? What should they talk about?

A solution, which can be very effective, if not the easiest or quickest to implement, is to teach these skills. Working with small groups to develop basic communication skills will aid understanding, addressing both the social side of communication and the more abstract non-verbal signs. The amount of information communicated using non-verbal signs can be far more valuable than what is actually said and, of course, is the most difficult for students on the spectrum to understand. Using emojis can be a great way of starting the process, as many students will have an understanding of them; relating these simple emotions to real life is often where the biggest challenges emerge.

The key to supporting pupils with autism during unstructured times is to reduce the anxiety and stress they feel, using all the tools in the teacher’s box of tricks. Being proactive is always going to be more successful than being reactive.

Further information

Karen Ferguson is Director of Linrow Education, which offers training and support services on autism to schools:

Karen Ferguson
Author: Karen Ferguson

+ posts


  1. I was very lucky at school, having a sympathetic librarian who let me stay in the library at breaks and lunchtimes (against the school rules). The peace of those precious minutes with a good book were such a relief from the tumult of the rest of the day. I didn’t know then I had Asperger’s (this was over forty years ago), but it explains my need for quiet time to reset and recharge.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here