Supporting Transition from Primary to Secondary School in Pupils with ASD.

Have you found yourself having sleepless nights worrying about your kiddos move to secondary school? You’re not alone! There are an estimated 100,000 children diagnosed with ASD in the UK. That’s why I decided to put together a handy blog containing information and tips to make the transition process as smooth as possible.

You know the score, you’ve been there. All of the emotions you felt when you started secondary school; fears of the unknown. “Will I fit in?” “Will I make friends?” “How will I remember where my classrooms are?” On average it takes a typically developing pupil around 2-3 weeks until these worries begin to fade. However, for a pupil with ASD this may take at least 2-3 terms.

WHY CAN THE TRANSITION BREAK DOWN?

Anxiety

Children with ASD often have high levels of anxiety, especially around change. Many of them will have settled into their primary school routine; the exact time school starts, when breaks and lunch are, the weekly timetable of lessons. Most Primary schools use the system of one teacher, one room and a class of familiar peers. Pupils may have specific support in place such as a visual timetable which prevents any surprises from happening that day. However, secondary school will have different rules and processes, as well as more independent self-management skills. Pupil’s are now tackled with a larger environment, several different teachers and lessons, mixed peer groups and a responsibility to bring books and equipment to lessons. Not to mention a change in their routine of travelling to and from school.

Communication

As well as the anxiety surrounding a change in location and routine, many children with ASD suffer from social anxiety. In order to be given a diagnosis of ASD, a child is usually assessed as having difficulties with their social interaction and social communication. Many really do want to make friends and form relationships but find initiating and maintaining them difficult. Moving into secondary school, inferencing and non-literal language such as idioms and sarcasm are commonly used across the student population. These are areas many ASD kiddos struggle to comprehend and research has shown these pupils can be at a greater risk of bullying (Sterzing et al 2012).

Environmental Change

As noted above, with a larger school environment comes more responsibility. Not only do pupils have to carry bags around with them containing homework diaries, books and pencil cases, they have to tackle a maze of corridors and potentially pay for their lunch. Lunchtime can be a particularly stressful part of the school day as depending on the secondary school, it may be an entire school free-for-all which involves long queues and a noisy dining room.

Behaviour

40% of children with ASD may also have co-morbid conditions such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and/or SEMH (Social Emotional Mental Health) (Mandy et al, 2015). This can sometimes have a detrimental effect on building student-teacher relationships and as we have all been reading in the press recently, pupils with SEN are at a greater risk of being excluded on the grounds of disruptive behaviour (Donno et al, 2012).

Information sharing

Perhaps the most frustrating breakdown can occur when the two educational settings and home don’t collaborate enough or share information. Communication really is key when it comes to a smooth transition and unfortunately hearing stories regarding this are far too common.

BUT…..do not despair! We can tackle all of the above negatives head on, and do our utmost to support our children and pupils to have the best transition possible.

WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?

1. Begin planning and preparing for the move at least 2 years in advance. This gives time for a thorough visit of each potential new school, numerous site trips and rehearsals of the school journey. I advise parents put together a list of questions or a checklist of specific things they want to ask/observe during their initial visit. Selecting a school may come down to the smallest of details.

2. Good communication!! If we are asking the pupil to develop their communication skills, we ought to be setting a good example. It is essential that all parties involved in the transition are aware of their role and responsibilities and that all information is shared promptly and effectively.

3. Teachers should receive specific training before the pupil begins, and information regarding the pupil’s strengths and needs should be shared to all key staff in a coherent, confidential manner. A survey conducted by NASUWT in 2013 found that 60% of teachers in England did not feel they received adequate training to teach autistic pupils. From the caretaker to the dinner ladies to the history teacher, all staff should be aware of how to support the pupil during this tricky time.

4. The new school should also provide the pupil with a map of the school grounds so they can begin to familiarise themselves with key locations. If a copy of their timetable is available, this would also be a wonderful resource. The pupil can then map which lessons happen in certain rooms and work out where to get dropped off and picked up.

5. Many pupils find receiving photographs of key staff and locations such as the dining room and their form room highly beneficial. This can reduce the anxiety of meeting teaching staff for the first time.

6. If they do not already have one, the pupil’s primary school should create a communication passport that contains the following information – personal photo, all about me, things you need to know, what I like, what I don’t like, eating and drinking, my family, my friends etc… Passports can contain as much or as little information as possible, but all key information should be easily accessible at the front. Some students may wish to have a small credit card sized board with basic details on that they can present at certain times e.g during assembly or at lunchtime. These size cards could also be used to express emotions or ask for help during lessons.

7. Social stories are a great way of introducing the topic of transition to a pupil with ASD. They are short descriptions of a particular situation, with or without the support of pictures or symbols. They provide specific information about what the child needs to expect and why, as well as some advice on how to act.

8. Parents/carers can support transition at home by reviewing the above materials with the pupil, and practising the routines at home. Having a visual timetable at home of what will be happening that day e.g which lessons, will help the pupil organise their thoughts and what they need to take to school that day. As mentioned earlier, discussing common idioms and explaining sarcasm in films or TV programmes may be useful to aid their peer interaction.

These strategies really are just the tip of the iceberg of how to support transition. If you are lucky enough to have a Speech and Language Therapist in school, ask them for further information on more specific activities that can help your child. Or drop me an email at jess@mabletherapy.com.

The very best of luck to everyone moving to Secondary School.

To quote W.Clement Stone

“Thinking will not overcome fear but action will!”

References:

NASUWT Support for Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs (June 2013)

https://www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/stats-and-facts#_ftn7

Jess Carpenter

Jess Carpenter

Specialist Speech and Language Therapist

Jess is a senior speech and language therapist who specialises in the link between communication and social, emotional and mental health. She has worked extensively with children and young people across the UK.

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