Charity offers secondary schools a lifeline to tackle mental health issues and absenteeism among autistic pupils

  • Latest figures show nearly 20,000 autistic pupils were persistently absent from state secondary schools, and four in five experience mental health issues1. 
  • As the Government aims to tackle school absence rates, national charity Ambitious about Autism says poor mental health and a lack of support are major contributing factors. 
  • With over 70,0002 autistic pupils in state secondary schools, Ambitious about Autism is launching an educational toolkit to prevent students reaching crisis point with their mental health.  
  • The programme, “Autistic and OK”, is a collaboration between Ambitious about Autism, Zurich and the Z Zurich Foundation. 


With almost 20,000 autistic pupils persistently absent from secondary school, missing around 10% or more of school time, national charity Ambitious about Autism, Zurich and its global charitable arm, Z Zurich Foundation, are launching the ‘Autistic and OK’ programme to tackle challenges around mental health and absenteeism among autistic 11-17-year-olds. 


The ‘Autistic and OK’ programme is an educational toolkit that will empower autistic pupils to take control of their own mental health and wellbeing before reaching crisis point. It is also designed to encourage more acceptance of autism across the whole school community, including teachers, peers and parents. The free online toolkit is being offered to secondary schools across the UK and could help more than 70,000 autistic pupils. 


The toolkit, which was successfully piloted in 19 schools, has resources for autistic young people in years 10-13. It will enable them to run peer-led sessions for younger autistic pupils. A teacher’s guide and information pack for parents and carers are also included.   


Designed by young autistic people for younger pupils and future generations 

‘Autistic and OK’ was developed with the support of autistic young people, who helped design the programme’s modules by identifying the topics that affect them most – anxiety, depression, OCD, and an associated topic of bullying. 


Megan, aged 24, an autistic youth advisor who helped develop the programme, said: “Throughout secondary school, my anxiety stopped me wanting to go to school. I would sometimes even pretend to be ill, as I didn’t want to face an environment where the other pupils and teachers didn’t understand me. In sixth form I wasn’t allowed to do my exams as I was in a mental health crisis. 


“I think the programme will help autistic pupils to look after their own mental health as well as promote more understanding and acceptance of autism in schools generally.” 


Lily, aged 17, another autistic youth advisor involved in the programme added: “We were able to use our first-hand experience of autism and mental health challenges to develop the ‘Autistic and OK’ resources, which I hope will support many other young people like us. 


“Managing your mental health as an autistic person can be a like a maze, often confusing and scary. The Autistic and OK programme will be a guide or map to fellow autistic pupils, so they can understand and navigate their own mental health in a way that is simple and gives them the helping hand they need.” 


Jolanta Lasota, Chief Executive of Ambitious about Autism, said: “The enormous struggle that many autistic pupils face at school is well documented. A lack of understanding and support means they are often ostracised from the classroom and their peers. They grow up feeling rejected and misunderstood, which has an enormous impact on their mental wellbeing.  


“Our groundbreaking programme, developed by autistic young people themselves, involves the whole school community – autistic pupils, their non-autistic peers, teachers and parents and carers. This pioneering approach creates an environment of acceptance and support that allows autistic pupils to be understood, respected and feel OK at school.”  


Gary Shaughnessy, Chair of the Z Zurich Foundation, commented: “Your school years are often a time of wonder and learning. Today, though, unfortunately many young people are waking up not wanting to go to school because they feel misunderstood or don’t have the right support in place.   


“We are pleased to be supporting this much-needed programme to give young autistic people the support and tools they need to enjoy and thrive in school, as well as give teachers, parents, and students the information they need to be able to support them.” 


Hon Sir Robert Buckland, MP for South Swindon said: “As a long-standing campaigner for autism acceptance, I welcome the launch of the Autistic and OK programme. I support its aims of improving the mental wellbeing of thousands of autistic young people while creating a more inclusive society by increasing autism acceptance in schools.”