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Mental health wellbeing
Tuesday 27 February 2024

How the Autistic and OK programme can help prevent a crisis in mental health for autistic pupils

I’ve been closely involved in designing and shaping the Autistic and OK programme from its inception to my current role overseeing the programme team. Not only does it hold a special place in my heart but Autistic and OK also stands as an essential response to the evolving mental health and wellbeing landscape of autistic young people.

Four out of five autistic young people report experiencing mental health issues, yet only 10% feel comfortable sharing these challenges with professionals. This acute crisis in mental health and wellbeing highlights the importance of our programme targeting autistic young people from age 11 onwards.  


The youth-led ethos of Autistic and OK  

Recognising the limited support for autistic young people in schools and given the prevalence of those who struggle with their mental health, Autistic and OK was developed to offer a unique peer-led approach. Our aim is to empower autistic pupils in years 10-13 to deliver sessions to their autistic peers in the younger years around some of the most common mental health topics. The peer-led sessions focus on the topics of anxiety, depression and OCD, as well as acknowledging vulnerability to bullying - and how these can relate to autistic young people.  

The co-production element of Autistic and OK really sets it apart, with 15 autistic Youth Advisors actively shaping the resources included in the programme toolkit. The Youth Advisors’ direct knowledge and experience has been integral to developing the programme, as well as ensuring it is based on the experiences of autistic young people themselves.


The pressing need for Autistic and OK  

The programme's emphasis on peer-led support is both innovative and crucial:

  • The National SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) Workforce Survey 2018-2020 revealed that 70% of secondary school SENCOs did not have enough time to complete their roles effectively. Autistic and OK addresses this challenge by offering free, ready-to-roll-out resources designed to minimise the time teachers and SENCOs spend running the programme.
  • 73% of autistic young people feel that their teachers do not understand their needs, which may be because only 14% of secondary school teachers have received substantial autism training. The Autistic and OK programme aims to bridge this gap by providing teachers with a free training module on autism and mental health.
  • Less than one in 12 autistic young people believe that their peers know enough about autism. To address this, the Autistic and OK toolkit contains a tailor-made assembly session, aimed at improving the understanding and acceptance of autistic pupils across the whole school community.


The national launch of Autistic and OK  

The Autistic and OK programme has been piloted in 19 secondary schools across the country. At the end of this pilot stage feedback was collected via surveys from teachers and pupils at these schools to evaluate the programme’s effectiveness. Learnings from this feedback helped guide the programme team to adapt the toolkit resources before our national launch.  

Some of the feedback from our pilot schools included:  

“I enjoyed them [the sessions]. I felt confident to put my hand up and answer questions. I found it easier to talk to the peer facilitators than I do the teachers at school.” – Pupil participant, Year 8

“It was a nice feeling of belonging in the room. The atmosphere was welcoming and […] positive.” – Pupil Peer Facilitator  

“Being designed by young autistic people also gave a level of gravitas to the programme. The students have really engaged and enjoyed the sessions.” - School programme lead


All our efforts would not be possible without our fantastic collaboration with Zurich and the Z Zurich Foundation. Recognising the importance of mental health and wellbeing support for autistic young people, they have been truly committed and passionate collaborators throughout.

Autistic and OK is not just a response to a pressing issue; it is a testament to the power of collaboration and proactive education in transforming the lives of autistic young people and reshaping the landscape of mental health and wellbeing support in schools. We encourage all secondary schools in the UK to take on this ground-breaking and transformative programme.  

Our easily downloadable, ready-to-use toolkit is now available for every single secondary school in the UK.


About the author

Nuala is the Senior Participation Programme Manager at Ambitious about Autism. She has worked in the charity sector for over ten years and has experience and knowledge of co-production with young people with a particular interest in neurodiversity and mental health.