School transitions for children with autism

Starting school, whether primary or secondary can be daunting for any child but especially for children or young adults living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Preparing for change

With lots of new changes, routines and people, your child may feel anxious and overwhelmed, however, there are a number of strategies to ensure a successful transition before you even set foot on campus.

It is important to start talking about the change that is about to happen well in advance. Explain to your child about all the different things they will be learning and doing at school or share stories about your school experiences.

Once you have decided what school to enrol your child in, drive past the new school so they become familiar with the environment and the trip to school. You can also prepare by trying on the school uniform, go shopping for a lunch box, water bottle and backpack and you can even do little ‘lessons’ in the comfort of your home.

Taking your child on a tour of the school will show them where they will be learning and playing. It will also be an opportunity to see the classroom, find out where the toilets are located, and discover the playground.

During this time, introduce the teacher to your child. It is also a good idea to give the teacher an information sheet on your child – including their likes and dislikes, what triggers tantrums and meltdowns, dealing with these episodes and any other useful information.

Creating a transition plan

You can help your child transition more smoothly into their new school environment by creating a transition plan. This plan helps your child feel more comfortable in the schooling environment through a staged process, including planned visits and discussions.

To create a transition plan you should:

  1. Meet with your child’s health professional and the teachers to discuss your child’s needs at present and going forward.

  2. Use a calendar or diary to mark dates e.g. school orientation, start date.

  3. At each visit to the school, plan what activity or area will be the focus and who your child will be meeting and where.

  4. Take photos to provide a visual description of the environment.

  5. Establish a buddy system so your child has a friend or trusted adult they can go to when they feel overwhelmed or unsure.

  6. Discuss current supports to school staff and provide a copy of these supports for home.

  7. Establish how home-school communication will work, such as a communication book or through email.

Starting primary school

Primary school signals the beginning of years of structured learning and education for your child. Going from a kindy environment to a “big kids” school can be fraught with emotions and uncertainty, but with a planned transition and supportive network, your child will soon be learning new things and making friends. Setting them up for success is the first step and this can be done both at home and with school visits.

There are some autism-specific schools across the country, but regardless, most schools have an understanding of autism and some even have classrooms or lessons specifically for children with special needs. It is important to speak to your child’s teacher about your son or daughter’s needs and how they can best support their transition into student life through regular breaks, focused lessons or modified classroom environments, such as low-level light or noise.

Tips to prepare for primary school

  • Talk to your child about school, including what to expect. Tell them they will meet new people, make some friends and learn lots!

  • Start using school stationery, uniform (such as a school hat), lunchbox and backpack when you go to familiar places from home

  • Visit the school and take a tour of the classrooms, toilets, assembly areas and playground

  • Create a chart detailing the morning and afternoon school routine (for example, wake up and shower, brush hair, put on school uniform, eat breakfast, pack school bag, put shoes on, leave)

  • Practice social skills and playground etiquette

  • Keep an open line of communication with the teacher

  • Chat to the school about quiet areas, such as the library, so your child has a safe place to go if they feel overwhelmed and show your child where these areas are located

  • Ask your child how they feel. If they feel anxious, chat through why this is and provide reassurance and some tips to regulate their emotions, such as finding a trusted adult or going to a quiet place

  • Set goals with a reward system (such as a sticker chart). For example, they get a small reward (like school stationery) if they stepped out of their comfort zone at school or met a new friend

  • Try to be excited and enthusiastic about this next step in their life. Children easily pick up on your emotions so if you appear worried or anxious they will be too

Transitioning to high school

Graduating from primary school and moving into high school is an exciting but often scary time. While it can involve discovering potential career pathways and freedom to choose subjects of interest, it’s also an environment with more chance of bullying and discrimination, which can be confronting and overwhelming.

But, with the support of family, friends, teachers and peers, your child can reach their full potential as they develop into a young adult.

Tips to prepare for high school

  • Discuss with your child about what to expect in high school as it is a new and unfamiliar environment. It is important to also gauge where their subject interests lie so you can help support them in potential career pathways

  • Have an honest and open chat about social and romantic relationships they may experience in high school

  • Tour the school’s facilities and meet the teachers

  • Talk to the school’s faculty ahead of time about education tutoring opportunities if your child needs some extra support

  • If your child is catching the bus to school, give them a map of the bus route and let them go for a few test trips

  • High school campuses can be big so give your child a map of the school

Starting school is an exciting time. With a tailored and planned approach, your child will soon be learning lots of new things, meeting new people and enjoying their time in the classroom.

What tips do you have for managing school transitions? Tell us in the comment section below.

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