Guidance on how to manage transition of children on the autistic spectrum from one educational institution to another, written in collaboration with our autism experts, the National Autistic Society.
“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” Alvin Toffler
In this quote, Alvin Toffler (American writer and futurist) was referring to the technological and social changes from an industrialised society to a super industrial society and how he believes these rapid changes are overwhelming people. But he could equally have been describing the experience of individual children on the autism spectrum being rushed through the transitions in their lives without adequate preparation, support or understanding.
Future shock in education
In the world of education, transitions can be the everyday changes at school, such as the transition from one lesson to the next; or the transition from working in a classroom to moving outside for unstructured free-time in the playground, which, for children on the autism spectrum, can be sources of anxiety and stress.
At a larger scale, we use the term transition to refer to the changes from early years to primary school; from primary school to secondary school; from secondary school to college. Unless these transitions are well managed and planned for, they can cause ‘shattering stress and disorientation’.
Many people on the autism spectrum find change difficult, partly due to an impairment of flexibility of thought. The unknown can induce anxiety in the person as they find it difficult to predict what might happen in the future. Pupils on the autism spectrum can become overwhelmed by the sensory stimuli of a new school, as a result of sensory processing differences. Transition will involve a moving away from familiarity (and perhaps consistency) towards new routines, new settings and new people.
For a smooth and successful transition from primary to secondary school, a thorough understanding of the individual child on the autism spectrum is paramount. In addition, it is vital to keep open lines of communication between parents, the primary school, the secondary school and other professionals before, during and after the transition. The following guidelines give some suggestions of the preparation that may be required for pupils on the autism spectrum.
- Arrange for the child and an accompanying adult to visit the new school, and for primary school staff, including teachers, teaching assistants, and other support workers, to visit the child at their early years setting. Primary school visits should give pupils experience of classes, assemblies, lunch and play.
- Provide a visual guide of the school in booklet form which includes photographs of key staff and areas in the primary school, e.g. dining hall, toilets, office, and tutor room.
- Incorporate targets to reflect ‘learning to learn’ behaviours, including listening to the teacher and sitting for longer periods.
- Incorporate targets to address potential difficulties with transition.
- Consider staffing issues – has the pupil had the same teaching assistant for some time? If so, planning should start now for increased independence and experience of relating to different adults.
- A transition meeting scheduled for early in the Summer term to share information and plan strategies to address areas of concern. Parents, outside agencies and the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) of the primary and secondary school need to be invited.
- Arrangements should be made for information provided by all present at the transition meeting to be communicated to all staff within the secondary school.
- Arrange extra visits in addition to those provided as standard induction.
- A teaching assistant could accompany, providing the secondary school agree. For some pupils, visiting the building after school hours may be helpful.
- Provide a visual guide of the school in booklet form to include photographs of key staff (e.g. form tutor, SENCO, headteacher, head of year, office staff) and areas in the secondary school, e.g. dining hall, toilets, office, tutor room.
- Provide a map of the school with key places highlighted.
- Plan how the pupil will be supported during unstructured times. Some pupils may need adult support to transfer from lesson to lesson for the first few weeks. Write down these arrangements so that the student will have a copy for reference.
- When there is to be a designated teaching assistant, provide opportunities for them to observe or work with the pupil in the primary setting during the Summer term.
- A video guide of the school for the pupil’s reference over the Summer holiday would be very helpful. If not already available, it could be produced by the media studies pupils as a project.
- Provide additional information about how to read the timetable, including a written explanation of abbreviations. Some pupils will benefit from colour coding subject areas for easy reference.
- Ensure all adults working with the pupil are aware of their specific difficulties, and the strategies implemented to date. It is important that school policy is to make all staff aware of exactly where such pupil profiles (including all SEN and other needs details) are kept.
- A class seating plan will help reduce the pupil’s anxiety and address their need for routine.
- Consider whether it is appropriate to inform the peer group about the pupil’s condition. This will depend on the pupil’s awareness of their diagnosis.
- Parental and pupil consent must then be sought.
- Additional adult support may be necessary during the first few weeks for key times, such as moving between lessons, using the canteen, break times, etc. This will enable the pupil to become familiar with the new environment and will reduce their anxiety.
- Be aware that using the school toilets can be a cause of anxiety, e.g. assuming an alternative toilet cannot be used when the designated one is out of action, or going to the toilet when others are present. The pupil will not necessarily communicate this to an adult and therefore go all day without using the toilet.
For children on the autism spectrum, a badly managed transition is likely to be traumatic, profoundly damaging and enduring, with ‘shattering stress and disorientation‘. To avoid ‘future shock’, a thorough knowledge of the individual is required, together with carefully coordinated planning, open lines of communication, tailored strategies and a consistent approach.