School – Tricky Lessons

It is important to acknowledge that some topic areas of the curriculum can themselves present difficulties for a neurodivergent young person.

Depending of the vulnerability of the learner to anxiety inducing materials, there are potentially a number of tactics that can support and scaffold youngsters as they are exposed to more tricky curriculum areas:


In the Primary Phase, there are many reports within the Autistic Girls Network Group where the topic of The Great Fire of London (usually introduced in Key Stage 1 in England) has caused significant issues with regard to fire-related phobia.

Examples given by members relate to profound fear of fire, fire escapes, fire alarms, death, destruction, safety of self, family members and pets which can last for years. The concerns and anxieties related to fire can impact the whole household, including places that can be visited, sleep, hypervigilance, cooking, heating and so on.

For the young person themselves, it is important to ‘locate’ the Great Fire of London in a specific time, and to acknowledge that much has changed since then. In fact, the Great Fire itself led to many changes in the structure of city design. Additionally, whilst fire safety vigilance is of course a requirement of daily life, the introduction of smoke detectors, fire escapes, building materials and a highly advanced Fire Service mean that fire-based risks are massively diminished.

It is important to note that many neurodivergent people have hearing differences and sensory issues which mean fire alarms can cause pain, and leave them dysregulated for a significant amount of time afterwards – see section on Hyperacusis and Misophonia.

What can be done more generally?

These suggestions may also be beneficial for neurotypical young people who have adverse experiences which could trigger a more profound reaction.

School-based staff should be ever mindful of the ways in which their identified or unidentified pupils and students may absorb ‘disaster based’ lessons, and if there is additional support that they can be given should the topic area cause additional anxiety. Educators may need to check in with their classes and caregivers to ensure that the issues raised in topics have not extended into the home life of the young person.

Parents/carers will often have access to curriculum maps and topic planning in advance, and may then be able to prepare particularly vulnerable learners or raise issues with staff.

If a topic or subject area has created a difficulty, it is vital to validate the young person’s concerns and not dismiss them.

Topics which may be ‘tricky’

especially World War Two: Young people have access to news in many formats, and with many wars being reported in real time, the topics can create huge and relevant anxiety.

volcanos, tsunamis, earthquakes, climate change. These exciting and vital aspects of the geography curriculum may prompt fears and concerns for the young person related to their every day lives. In the UK, we are located far away from geographic disaster zones, but climate anxiety is a phenomenon which many young people experience, and neurodivergent youngsters are particularly vulnerable to this.

for young people who were assigned female at birth, puberty and periods can present enormous difficulties. Schools may wish to have smaller groups and dedicated lessons for neurodivgent young people where topics can be revisited and dealt with in a matter of fact way, bearing in mind difficulties with asking questions publicly experienced by many adolescents, and particularly relevant in those who are neurodivergent. Topic areas covering CONSENT are extremely relevant to neurodivergent young people who are known to be prone to peer pressure. ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) and PBS (Positive Behaviour Support) interventions are especially problematic where compliance without question forms part of the ‘philosophy’.

Please also see the section Puberty and Periods

this is a very important area of the curriculum, but for neurodivergent youngsters who have a restricted diet, which is extremely common, this topic may lead them to further restricting their intake which can be exceptionally dangerous.

see section on Eating Disorders

many neurodivergent youngsters can find these lessons extremely challenging from a sensory perspective. Executive Function problems can mean that they may forget recipe items. Sensory issues can mean tasting food that has been prepared may be overwhelming.

Some neurodivergent pupils and students find PE very challenging for a number of reasons –

Sports Halls are noisy, bright and echo-chambers;

Contact sports may result in difficult physical contact;

Dyspraxia can mean that participation can be challenging and impact self esteem;

Changing rooms are often chaotic, close contSport and PE: act, smelly and sometimes unsupervised;

PE kit can be very revealing and especially difficult for those with self harm scars; PE kit can be easily forgotten for those with executive function issues; PE kit can be uncomfortable for those with sensory issues due to fabric types;

Whistles are a sensory challenge for those with hyperacusis;

Ehlers Danlos, Hypermobility and POTS can result in pain, joint issues and physical discomfort ;

Periods can present additional issues from a sensory perspective that may be more profound than for a neurotypical youngster.

Alexythemia – the ability to identify and talk about emotions – can play a very important role in how a young person engages with some aspects of the literacy curriculum, particularly where there are questions related to ‘what the character is feeling’. Over half of autistic people are thought to be alexithymic. Topics covered in some texts can also be very challenging for those who think literally, and the way sentences are structured can mean the pupil needs to infer information which may not be possible for autistic young people.

What can be done?

Parents/carers may notice that School-Based Anxiety is exacerbated based on topics or lessons which appear in the curriculum. Noticing this, and supporting the young person to be involved in an appropriate way is vital.

The pupil should be given opportunities to consider how they wish to engage with the lesson / topic – validating how they feel and giving them the opportunity to explore challenges and solutions will help them self-advocate and increase their self-awareness.