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Secondary school transitions: teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

9-18 years

Starting secondary school can be both an exciting and challenging time for you and your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Planning, preparation and good communication between you and the school can help make the transition into and out of secondary school successful.

Secondary school transition needs for children with autism spectrum disorder

Transitions of any kind can be difficult for children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Starting at secondary school is a big change for any child, and particularly for children with ASD. To make things easier for your child, the transition will need careful planning and might need to happen in stages. The way you get your child ready for school transition will depend on her particular needs.

Transition plans for secondary school

One way to help prepare your child for change is with a transition plan.

Transition plans outline:

  • what change is about to happen and where and when it’s happening
  • what needs to be done, who will do it and when
  • how your child has coped with other transitions in his life
  • what things have helped your child cope with other transitions – for example, visual supports, Social Stories™, transition stories, sensory supports, short movies and so on
  • how your child will be supported during the school day once he has made the transition.

A good transition plan helps your child move successfully to the new school environment, accept new teachers and staff, and cope with change throughout the day.

Developing your child’s transition plan

You’ll need to work with school staff, teachers and other support workers or aides to develop your child’s transition plan.

It’s important to start making the plan early, so that you can be sure there’s enough time for your child and the school to do the things in the plan.

Things for you and your child to do before starting school
Visiting the new school will be part of your child’s transition plan. It’s a good idea to visit several times over a couple of terms or even longer until your child feels ready to go regularly. It can help to mark the dates on a calendar, so you can show your child how many days until the next visit. You can count down the days with your child.

Here are some things about school visits to put in your child’s transition plan:

  • Plan activities or areas of the school to focus on at each school visit.
  • Plan who your child will meet at each visit, and where.
  • Take photos of the new classrooms, library, canteen, school fences and gates, school signs and so on.
  • Make a map of the school and use colours to highlight important areas of the school – for example, the classroom, quiet room, photography club room and so on.

You’ll also need to liaise with the new school. Here are some ideas for the transition plan:

  • Talk to the school about setting up a mentor or buddy system.
  • Talk to the school about setting up a student support group for your child.
  • Hand over existing supports to school staff, including the supports you use at home – for example, visual supports for completing tasks.
  • Talk with school staff about how you and the school will communicate.

Things for the school to do before your child starts
The school might need to make some changes to help your child adjust to the new learning environment. These should be included in the transition plan.

These might be changes to the:

  • classroom environments, including physical set-up, lighting, noise levels and so on
  • subjects your child can study
  • extracurricular activities the school offers.

The school might also need to organise support services for your child.

The plan might include the school’s strategies to help your child with break times and free time. For example, your child could be excused from class five minutes early to avoid the lunch time rush at the lockers, or spend time in the library or computer room at lunch time. You can discuss these strategies with the school ahead of time.

After your child starts school
Your child’s transition plan will also need to include how your child will be supported during the school day.

Part of this will be plans for helping your child with daily structure and routine, including:

  • moving classrooms
  • managing books, folders and equipment
  • using specialised rooms like the music room and gym
  • working with unfamiliar or substitute teachers
  • going to school using a different route
  • going to school events.
Video

Transition to secondary school: children with autism spectrum disorder

7:18

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and education specialists talk about the challenges of moving from primary school to secondary school for children with ASD. They say it’s good to prepare as much as possible beforehand so there are no surprises for you or your child. Schools often have transition days before the holidays to help children get familiar with their new schools.

Your child’s transition plan might be useful for planning your child’s next big transition – that is, from secondary school to another educational setting or workplace.

Transition out of secondary school for teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

The transition out of secondary school into volunteer work, employment or other educational settings also needs planning and preparation.

While your child is still at secondary school, you can plan for this transition by using social activities and volunteer and paid work opportunities to help your child build new skills and make contacts.

If your child doesn’t finish school
Some teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might leave school before finishing their studies because they can’t cope with the curriculum, academic expectations or the sensory environment.

Secondary school isn’t the only educational setting your child can attend.

Other places include:

  • technical and further education (TAFE) – for example, a certificate in work education
  • vocational education and training (VET)
  • supported services like disabilities employment agencies.
Your child might find that options like TAFE or VET are very flexible and accessible. These settings can also give older teenagers hands-on experience working in areas of interest. Some can help your child transition back into secondary school or higher education settings, if that’s what your child wants.

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Last updated or reviewed
01-06-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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