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The Autism Toolbox: An Autism Resource for Scottish Schools


2.9 Transitions

Transitions can be very problematic for pupils on the autistic spectrum due mainly to their cognitive processing of the environment and need for predictability. Children are likely to have difficulties with:

  • Interpreting the thoughts/feelings/expectations of new people (Theory of Mind);
  • Understanding or establishing appropriate new routines (weak Central Coherence);
  • Planning and organisation (Executive Functioning);
  • Sensory processing.

All of the above can provoke high levels of anxiety and may result in unusual behaviours or responses, such as:

  • Fear;
  • Inappropriate reactions due to lack of social understanding and what behaviour is expected;
  • Attempts to keep environment the same, or negative responses to transition interfering with existing structures;
  • Non compliance;
  • Behaviour that adults find challenging.

Pupils need to know…

  • Where they have to be
  • Who might be there
  • What they will/should be doing
  • What behaviour is expected
  • How much they have to do
  • How they will they know they are finished
  • What they will be doing next.

(Division TEACCH, 2006)

These points are not unreasonable: as adults we tend to expect children to do what they are told without question. However, if sent on a course or to a meeting most of us would be uncomfortable without at least the above information!

Types of transition

There are numerous types of transition that occur throughout the day, the school term, the year and across the lifespan. It is not always the major transitions that have the most impact on pupils on the spectrum but all need to be considered and planned for where possible. At the very least, coping with transition needs to be recognised as a potential stressor for pupils and their families. The following are a selection of common transitions:

  • From one educational placement to another (new building, new people, new structures etc.).
  • From stage to stage
  • Different areas of the school
  • Home to school
  • Different/new personnel
  • Home issues (new house/new baby/bereavement/holidays)
  • Personal transitions as a result of maturation and development

Preparing a pupil on the autistic spectrum for a transition can vary widely, such as a trusted adult taking five minutes to explain why there has been change to the day, going to the assembly hall early to rehearse where you will sit before the hall is too busy, or a large multi-disciplinary team preparing a child to move between educational establishments. Whatever the scale or complexity of the transition the most important factor is to consider the situation from the perspective of the pupil, taking account of their strengths, difficulties and past experiences.

The following issues need to be considered when planning transitions between key stages. Some will also be appropriate for the day-to-day transitions.

Pupil preparation

  • Explore classroom and unfamiliar areas of school:
    • Identify times when class is empty - break/Gym/drama
    • Emphasise function of areas and 'rules'
    • Photographs or video to discuss at home
  • Activities in classroom as an individual:
    • Transfer visuals where appropriate
    • Discuss and model 'how to…. In P1'
    • Identify key resources and practise key procedures (cloakroom/register/lunches etc.)
  • Introduce key staff in familiar environment before meeting them in new environment
  • Activities in new environment as part of small group led by familiar adult
  • Where appropriate, discuss differences between familiar and new environments
    • Unfamiliar vocabulary
    • Timetables and subjects
    • Equipment needed/organisation
  • Identify Buddy/monitor/prefect/key adults
  • Provide factual information about school and staff - it may seem irrelevant but can be important and reassuring to pupils on the autistic spectrum. School handbooks and websites can be particularly useful
  • Problem solving using school scenarios, focusing on locating appropriate individuals to help if things go wrong and keeping safe (see Resource 26)
  • Individual concerns
  • It is important to be flexible and understanding. However, it is equally important to be clear about expectations from the start

Staff preparation

The emphasis tends to be on individual pupils and their difficulties. However, it is equally and in fact, often more important to prepare staff who will be working with the pupil. The following should be considered:

  • Whole school in-service/development sessions (Ideally delivered jointly with other services)
  • Personal experience and concerns/fears
  • Distribution of current pupil profiles, pen portraits, or home information
  • Collaboration time for staff to transfer information
  • Informal meeting with parents
  • Consultation with support services
  • Advice regarding classroom layout, current strategies, IEP targets
  • Multi-professional transition meeting
  • On-going support from senior management and appropriate agencies
  • Access to autism specific courses

Parental Concerns

Major transitions between stages are stressful for most parents; if their children have ASN/ ASD they cannot take the most basic elements of the transition for granted. In some cases they may have had a negative experience and be particularly anxious that mistakes are not repeated or that professionals are taking their concerns seriously. It is not suggested that schools do everything parents ask, but there must be a dialogue. Parent - school relationships are one of the most influential factors in successful placements.

It can be immensely beneficial if schools are pro-active in collating and valuing information from the home environment, even if it is only to make staff aware that a pupil is not sleeping and may be less tolerant than usual. Best practice occurs when schools work with parents to address home issues as well as school issues when appropriate. The following are common issues for parents:

  • Safety
  • Toileting
  • Behaviours
  • Child's communication
  • Other children
  • Siblings
  • Homework
  • Eating
  • Sleeping
  • Parents' role
  • Communication with Staff
  • Curriculum
  • If things go wrong…

A transition plan should be prepared reflecting the individual circumstances of each transition and distributed to all concerned (examples 14 - p128, 15 - p128 and 16 - p129).

Example 14 - Nursery - Primary transition

Transition practices are often well developed for all children moving between nursery and primary education. Very young children often lack the capacity to generalise their experiences across settings and therefore nursery and primary staffs increasingly work together to develop shared practices and to ensure that the new primary classroom is familiar to school entrants. For the child with autism it is particularly important that the context allows them to make use of prior learning.

In the second year of nursery Ben often sought out Mark's company. The boys shared an interest in building Lego constructions for which Mark with his special interest in written words would write out labels. In the last term of nursery school their shared interests expanded into more social play with cars and with a wider range of construction materials. Ben led the way in social situations whilst Mark provided depth of knowledge on particular topics. Both were going on to the same primary school which had 2 primary 1 classes. It had been decided to split the intake by age - the boys were 4 months apart and Mark was allocated to the older group where it was felt his academic skills were more likely to be matched by those of other children. However Mark knew few of the children entering his new class. His nursery teacher suggested it would be important for Mark to go to school with his friend, Ben, who quite naturally provided him with necessary social support and could read the social situation and social interactions readily.

At first the primary staff were reluctant to make this exception to intake plans, but after seeing how isolated Mark was on his induction days, and how anxious he became, the primary 1 teachers arranged to observe in the nursery school, and agreed that it was in Mark's best interests to go to school with his friend. The nursery teacher worked with the 2 boys to produce a book showing some of their Lego designs, annotated by Mark - this was added to the primary 1 class library before the boys left nursery.

Example 15 - Primary - Secondary transition

An 11 year old boy leaving a base for pupils on the autism spectrum and moving to a base within a high school. With help from a speech and language therapist, the pupil made up a communication passport to take with him to his new school. The pupil was asked what he would like people to know about him. He came up with several suggestions i.e. about his family, who his friends are, special things and people to him, places that he likes to go, how can others help him communicate, when he might need help, how to help him, what to do if he gets upset and things that he did not like doing. After discussions with the pupil it was felt that he should inform people in his passport that he has an autism spectrum disorder. The new school found this document to be invaluable.

A circle of friend with 8 pupils who would be attending the same high school was set up to support the pupil in getting to know his peers on a more social level. They had lunch together once a week for 6 months leading up to High School. His class teacher visited his new school with his parents before they decided on his placement. After the placement was confirmed his class teacher arranged for the High School staff to visit the Primary School environment. The following week the pupil visited the High School and looked around. This was an opportunity to take photos of the pupil in every class along with the staff that he would be working with. The pupil made a power point presentation of his new classes. He visited the High School with his SLA to again familiarise himself with the surroundings. The pupil participated in two moving up days unsupported by his primary school. He thoroughly enjoyed them and felt comfortable in his new surroundings.

Example 16 - Making a successful transition to University

1) Early communication between applicant and key university staff

In some cases, this communication, when instigated by the applicant, their family or school, can start as early as a year prior to entry; generally speaking, the earlier the better. It allows opportunities to plan for transition, to allow the applicant to build relations with key university staff - in both their academic department and the Disability Service - and to start familiarisation with the University/campus environment. Where students will require adjustments to assessment (such as extra time in written exams) or may require additional support (such as equipment or a Mentor), diagnostic evidence is typically required. It is helpful if the school can make available any relevant information regarding the applicant's diagnosis, the impact of their difficulties and the nature of any support provided at school.

2) Opportunities to experience University prior to start of course

Some applicants will make use of structured opportunities to 'try out' University by participating in the GOALS project or by attending the Summer School. A range of opportunities are appropriate, and Strathclyde University also includes participation in the Summer Transition Programme (run by the Disability Service in collaboration with the National Autistic Society) and the Effective Learning Programme (a series of small group study skills sessions offered to all disabled applicants and students). Open days offer another opportunity to visit academic departments and become familiar with the University environment.

3) Engaging with relevant external agencies

Both the Disability Service and an increasing number of academic departments will have valuable experience of supporting previous applicants/students with AS. However, the breadth and depth of experience and expertise - such as offered by NAS - is a valuable source of support to both Universities and the applicant and their family. NAS will offer applicants and their families more general support with preparation for University including assistance with form filling and liaising with the University.

4) Supported transition

Having additional one-to-one support at key stages in the transition can make a huge difference. A Mentor can accompany and/or guide a new student through the bewildering procedures surrounding registration, signing up for tutorial groups, finding teaching classrooms, locating the toilets, cafes and quiet spaces, attending events in Freshers' Week, joining the gym or special interest clubs and societies, using the library, getting on-line and so on. Some students will also benefit from one-to-one support from a Study Support Assistant (who might also be their Mentor), with organising their timetable, planning for deadlines, exploring strategies for note-taking and organising information and so on.

Having one-to-one support means the applicant or student has a 'trouble-shooter' to identify and address any potential difficulties or confusion on the spot.

2.9.1 The Impact of ASD on Transitions (Grid 10)

The impact of ASD on Transitions

Impact of ASD

Responding to the needs of pupils with ASD

Links to HGIOS Quality Indicators

1.2 Fulfilment of statutory duties

2.1 Learners' experiences

2.2 The school's success in involving parents, carers and families

4.1 The school's success in working with and engaging with the local


4.2 The school's success in working with the wider community

5.1 The Curriculum

5.3 Meeting learning needs

5.4 Assessment for learning

5.5 Expectations and promoting achievement

5.6 Equality and fairness

5.7 Partnership with learners and parents

5.8 Care, welfare and development

7.2 Staff deployment and teamwork

7.3 Staff development and review

8.1 Partnerships with the community, educational establishments, agencies and employers

8.3 Management and use of resources and space for learning

8.4 Managing information

9.1 Vision, values and aims

9.2 Leadership and direction

9.3 Developing people and partnerships

Refer to HMIEEducation for Pupils with Autism Spectrum Disorder Recommendations 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8

  • Resistance to change with a preference for the familiar, is a key feature of individuals on the spectrum. Transition of any kind is likely to involve elements that are new whether that be people, expectations or contexts.
    Cognitive styles will influence individual interpretation, processing and understanding of new environments.
  • Assessment to work towards an individualised transition plan should take place. This should take account of:
    • The pupil's capacity to cope with change
    • Key people or agencies who may be contributing to the transitions process.
    • Preparation visits.
    • Communication of information in a form that is accessible to the pupil.
    • Parental concerns.
    • CPD for staff.
    • Time (staff) - for planning, familiarisation and a reasonable timescale for the transition to take place.
  • Time (pupils) - to raise awareness of new processes vocabulary and get to know key staff. To explore new environments. To have an opportunity to share any concerns;
  • If appropriate formal and informal risk assessments may need to be incorporated in keeping with local policy guidance.
  • Sensory processing difficulties may be heightened in new environments. Filtering of sensory information may be problematic and may result in stress reactions or increased anxiety leading to challenging or bizarre/inappropriate behaviours.
  • During familiarisation visits staff should observe and take account of any adverse responses to environmental stimuli such as sounds, crowded areas, lighting, temperature or the proximity of others.
  • Measures may need to be taken to make reasonable adaptations to the environment. Expectations of what will be required of the pupil in particular settings may also need review and adjustment according to needs.
  • The anticipation of transitions can be anxiety provoking. Events/transitions that are often welcomed and hoped for in typically developing pupils may be a source of fear and anxiety to pupils on the spectrum as they are unlikely to be able to assimilate an internal image of what the process may involve or what may occur in a new situation. They may also be unable to draw on similar, previous experiences in order to anticipate what may be involved or what may be required of them.
  • It will also be important to identify areas where the pupil is comfortable as this may be a location they may use if they are stressed and need to take some time out.
  • These aspects should be considered as part of the initial assessment of the pupil. Additionally the views of the pupil and their parents/carers and previous teachers will be informative in developing approaches.
  • Adjusting to the expectations of new sets of people in a new context is likely to be challenging and altering social behaviour in keeping with a changing context can be difficult for pupils with ASD.
  • Connections between past and current experiences may not be immediately obvious to the pupil. Staff can draw on previous information to support the pupil to make connections and to offer reassurance.
  • The social rules and expectations of any situation need to be made explicit to pupils with ASD. Information needs to be presented in a way that meets their needs and may need to be continually accessible so that pupils can have a point of reference if they are unsure about expectations. Similarly such a point of reference will aid teachers in reminding pupils of behavioural expectations.
  • Visual information (e.g. photographs) or school websites will provide pupils with a concrete point of reference regarding new adults or the roles of adults in a new context.
  • Given the complex and diverse nature of the needs of some individuals on the spectrum there are likely to be a variety of professionals involved. The pupil or parents may not fully understand their role or their involvement and may have only occasional contact with some of the involved professionals.
  • The validity of time for involved professionals to communicate needs to be recognised.
  • Effective communication and shared perspectives between schools regarding supporting the transition of pupils with ASD is likely to lead to more proactive planning and supportive practice.
  • There is likely to be a role for senior management within schools to take responsibility for co-ordinating professional involvement when a range of agencies are represented.
  • Systems and approaches may need to be adapted so that pupils can engage in review processes. This may include the use of visual communication materials e.g. talking mats or time with a familiar supportive adult to prepare for review or other meetings. Visual rating scales may also be helpful.
  • The potentially complex nature of ASD may give rise to concerns among staff. Such concerns may be due to incomplete records or misinformation about the nature of ASD in general and how it is impacting on the individual pupil in particular.
  • Recording systems may need to be adapted to take account of the specific aspects that will be relevant for pupils with ASD.
  • Opportunities should be sought for formal and informal CPD to support staff who may feel anxious about their level of expertise in ASD. e.g. attendance at training courses, visiting ASD bases, networking with other agencies and schools, sharing good practice and building relationships with parents. Time to collate reading and other resources that will increase understanding and confidence.
  • On-going support from senior management.
  • Assessment of the individual pupil and circumstances as well as liaison between existing and future staff will be needed to ascertain the most appropriate time line.
  • The lead in time for transitions to occur will be predicated by the individual impact of ASD on the pupil. Key elements are the capacity to appreciate the concept of the passage of time and their ability to cope with future, stressful events.
  • The adults can begin the process well ahead of time even if the pupil will not be directly involved till a later stage. It is more effective to begin early and have time for a full analysis of the situation than to cause stress and risk failure by delaying.

2.9.2 Developmental Impact on Personal Transitions

  • 'From the second year of life we find already the characteristic features that remain unmistakeable and constant throughout the whole life-span...'

(Asperger, 1944/1991, p.67)

The development of all children with ASD will be uneven and idiosyncratic, having a dramatic and often unexpected impact on personal transitions throughout the lifespan. In particular, areas of social communication, social interaction and flexibility of thought/social imagination will suffer significant delay. Furthermore,

  • each impairment interacts with every other, so that they overflow and pervade each other; it is the interaction between different parts of the syndrome which is most characteristic of autism'.

(Newson cited by Jordan, 1999. Resource 21)

In accordance with a profile of uneven development, however, certain areas will be less affected. For example, fine/gross motor skills may be relatively intact (although these, too, can be affected in children with a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome ( AS), or cognitive performance may be on a par with, or even above, that of their peers. Unfortunately the core areas of impairment will also impact on such relatively intact areas of development (e.g. a fundamental impairment in understanding communication will affect the understanding of a lesson when delivered verbally, despite the child having average intelligence).

Global learning disability if present will also impact on development across the board; however the key areas of impairment will be more greatly affected. Furthermore, the child may have other disorder/s affecting their development. The impact of each will need to be gauged and appropriately supported.

Another factor potentially impacting on personal transitions is that onset of epilepsy may occur at an increased rate and at an older age in children with autism as opposed to the general population: it is prevalent in a quarter to a third of children who have learning disability as well as autism, with onset most likely in the early teenage years (Ives and Munro, 2002) (Resource 61).

The uneven developmental profile characteristic of autism may result in other people having an unrealistic perception of the child's abilities and challenges throughout their life. This can work both ways, with areas of deficit perhaps masking peak skills, or apparent skill areas masking underlying impairment. While development and progress is expected, especially in children less severely affected by their ASD, if appropriately supported (Ives and Munro, 2002); unless their developmental profile is understood then teaching and intervention strategies are unlikely to be appropriately pitched.

As a result of such developmental challenges, the child will mature at a different rate to their peers with uneven/qualitatively different levels of maturation across different areas. An understanding of their developmental profile can be gained through assessment tools such as the Psychoeducational Profile-Revised ( PEP-R. Schopler Reichler, Bashford et al, 1990) and its successor, the Psychoeducational Profile: Third Edition ( PEP3. Schopler Lansing, Reichler and Marcus, 2005) (Resource 39). Across the board, the child's autism, and its interaction with other aspects of their profile, will impact on personal transitions, making them qualitatively different, and often delayed in relation to, those of their peers. The following will look at the potential impact of ASD at different stages of childhood below:

2.9.3 Early Childhood

Beginning with the pre-schooler, while physical development may have occurred in line with peers, or slightly slower, delays and differences will become increasingly apparent in social skills; communication; cognitive and self help skills.

When supporting a child with an ASD it is essential to keep in mind the framework of typical development. This constant reference to typical development provides insight into the actual achieved stages of development or developmental functioning for each child. Socially, the child may remain at the developmental level of 'parallel play' or not even reach this level, remaining aloof and alone. Interaction with others may be solely in order to have needs met (i.e. using others as tools), otherwise appearing passively indifferent to others. Alternatively, lack of understanding of social rules such as give and take may lead to a lack of reciprocal interaction seeing the child dominating play with other children.

Early communicative skills such as eye contact, sharing attention, pointing and joint attention are significantly affected, affecting subsequent development in not only communication, but areas such as imagination, social understanding and self help, too. Over 50% of all children with autism will not have developed speech by four years, and are unlikely to develop compensatory strategies, such as gesturing. Only about 25% of four year olds with autism have some meaningful speech, and this is likely to be extremely limited. The remaining 25% develop some speech but use it in a rote, echolalic fashion (repeating without meaning) (Harris, 2000). Use and understanding of non verbal communication is also likely to be affected, regardless of ability.

Play is likely to have a rigid, repetitive, non-social quality and, without focused intervention, probably not progress beyond the levels of 'sensori-motor' play (involving sensory exploration of items, as seen in 6-8 month old babies); 'organizing play' (where items are lined up or stacked with no understanding of their actual function - occurring at 6-9 months typical development) or limited 'functional play' (using play objects according to function, as seen at age 9-12 months typical development) (Beyer and Gammeltoft, 1999) ( Resource 18). This will be in stark contrast to peers, who at this age will be forming friendships and engaging in increasingly sophisticated imaginative and joint play.

At around 4 years, typically developing children will understand that other people think differently to them ('theory of mind'). This has a huge impact on their social understanding and interactions, however the child with autism is highly unlikely to make this developmental stage, leaving them vulnerable to others and unable to understand, communicate and interact in the same way as their peers.

In personal transitions to the acquisition of self help skills, milestones such as toilet training are likely to be delayed: almost half all children with autism are not toilet trained by the age of 4 (Powers, 2000) ( Resource 62). Similarly, feeding and sleep difficulties may persist into later childhood and perhaps beyond. Changes to routine are likely to be extremely upsetting.

Difficulties in the above areas can lead to behavioural expression (Stoddart, 2004) ( Resource 23) and tantrums may continue well beyond the expected age: 'Even for the most able, their attentional and emotional control may be below the level of a nine-month-old and so the behaviour shown is at a similar level' (Jordan, 2002) ( Resource 22). Where appropriate, behaviour management programmes, based on an understanding of how autism impacts on the behaviour, should be implemented early on. Such intervention is likely to have a big impact on the likelihood of difficult behaviours such as aggression and self-injury continuing into adolescence (Powers, 2000).

Not only may the child with autism develop at a slower rate to their peers, but developmental milestones may occur in a different sequence to that expected (Powers, 2000). This again can add confusion as to actual developmental level. In some children of higher ability, difficulties may not be fully recognised, understood for what they are and accurately identified. This is usually due to the uneven developmental profile masking some areas of impairment (e.g. surface language ability deflecting from the underlying difficulties in social communication).

Early intervention (based on a thorough understanding of autism, and of the individual child's profile) is recognised as extremely important in supporting development (Stoddart, 2004; Jordan, 2002). Where this has not occurred, perhaps due to late diagnosis, developing an accurate understanding of the child in the context of their autism should enable appropriate intervention. It is important to view their difficulties from a developmental perspective and this may entail teaching very early social behaviours such as those seen in very young babies, despite their being at a much later chronological age, in an attempt to develop fundamental but missing skills. Practitioners should be aware of the many claims of success made by advocates of specific early intervention methods, and take a balanced view of these, informed by the research literature (Jordan, 2002).

In summary, whereas the typically developing child generally develops and flourishes socially, emotionally, cognitively and physically, smoothly transitioning through their developmental milestones, the child with autism is likely to move very slowly through many important personal transitions. This slow progress will undoubtedly impact on transition through later childhood and adolescent years.

2.9.4 Mid Childhood

As social behaviour amongst typical children becomes increasingly complex and sophisticated, that of the child with autism appears increasingly incongruous (Williams and Wright, 2004) ( Resource 31). In higher functioning children, where earlier social difficulties may have been masked, the differences are now apparent: they are unlikely to have close friendships and important social behaviours such as sharing, losing gracefully and turn taking have not developed. Not picking up on unspoken social rules (e.g. 'not telling on' your class mates) may lead to avoidance, stigmatisation and bullying by other children. Behaviour towards adults is also likely to have an unusual quality.

Daily transitions such as school - home; break time and between subjects are likely to cause stress and anxiety disproportionate to that of peers. The impact of lacking certain early developmental skills will continue to manifest in areas such as difficulty learning through imitation.

Personal interests are likely to be out of line with those of their peers, due to content or intensity (e.g. talking volubly about train engines; trying to collect desk fans). The child will have difficulty sharing others' interests, perhaps leading to perceptions of being self centred. Sense of humour is likely to remain at a very concrete level (e.g. slapstick).

In children with AS, especially, there is an increased rate of mood disorders such as anxiety or depression occurring. These may require specialist/medical intervention (Attwood, 2007) ( Resource 60) and are usually a result of their ongoing difficulties with socialising; coping with change; coping with sensory sensitivities and having to work that much harder than others in order to process and understand what is going on around them.

2.9.5 Adolescence

Again, if we look at typical development, the onset of adolescence brings with it a multitude of transitions, internal and external, leading to a 'more or less perpetual state of disequilibrium' (Boyd and Bee, 2003) (see also Boyd and Bee, 2008, Resource 78) and requiring development of new understandings and skills. While this is challenging enough for youngsters without autism, in many ways it can present even more of a challenge for this group. Furthermore, while the support of peers is central to this process in typical development, this mechanism is unlikely to be present, or indeed accessible by, the adolescent with autism. Puberty might also occur slightly later for some individuals with autism (Mortlock, 1993).

During early adolescence one's thinking moves from 'concrete operations' which are dependent on external objects and pictures to support concepts, to internalised 'formal, abstract operations' (Boyd and Bee, 2008). In autism however it is likely to remain at a concrete level, especially for those teenagers with additional intellectual impairment (Mortlock, 1993). Areas such as self awareness, abstract thinking, moral reasoning and manipulation of ideas will all be affected by the individual's autism. Changing their own behaviour and self perception in line with other people's new perceptions of them as young adults is another hurdle that will require emotional support and practical strategies. The physical changes of puberty too can cause considerable anxiety (e.g. refusal to accept new, larger clothing; shaving off bodily hair as it appears).

It should be pointed out that adolescence in autism may however bring increased flexibility and reduced behavioural problems. IQ is likely to remain stable; however an increase or decrease may sometimes occur. Improvement in flexibility, tolerance of change and social interest may also occur. Some factors which suggest a more positive long term outcome for the child are level of cognitive ability; development of some spontaneous speech by age five or six and 'systematic early intervention'. However, the difficulties stemming from the triad of impairments will still pervade and for some the symptoms of autism may increase in severity (Powers, 2000).

The higher functioning teen with ASD may be aware of their developmental differences and the difficulties these cause, perhaps leading to secondary mental health problems. For example, they may be aware that peers are developing opposite sex relationships, but are themselves unsuccessful at this, lacking the skills and understanding required (Stoddart, 2004). It may be that a developmental crisis, in which the teenager is unable to meet key targets reached by his or her peers, is the start of the actual process of receiving a diagnosis of AS in a teenager hitherto undiagnosed (Atwood, 2007). Individuals with learning disability as well as autism may actually be protected by their disability from this acute insight into their difficulties, however deterioration in mental well being in adolescence has been found in 10% of people with autism (Rutter, 1970, cited Mortlock, 1993).

The transition from primary to secondary school can be an extremely difficult process. Not only is the environment and peer group changing, but also daily routines; expectations of others; range of teachers and classrooms; teaching styles; unstructured break times; increased workload; the need to increasingly organise themselves and their own learning, and physical development. The interests and social behaviour of typical peers will also be changing dramatically but unlikely to be shared or understood by the adolescent with autism. Hormonal changes will create further difficulties, the nature of which may be hard for the adolescent to understand. The above will all be compounded by difficulties created by the autism such as understanding changes going on around/inside them; interpreting and expressing their difficulties in a way that others understand; and seeking and receiving social support.

Finally, the major transition into adulthood will be looming as the young person approaches school leaving age. The direct impact of this transition will vary from person to person, however, given their autism, it can be expected that they will require considerable support both to understand and to undertake such transition. While peers will be striving for independence and considering concepts such as future career and personal aspirations, those with autism are likely to need planned and sustained support to think futuristically and to work towards the achievement of goals and ambitions.

2.9.6 The Impact of ASD on Personal Transitions (Grid 11)

The impact of ASD on Personal Transitions

Impact of ASD

Responding to the needs of pupils with ASD

Links to HGIOS Quality Indicators (highlighted by theme)

Quality Indicator: Key performance outcomes:

1.1 Improvement in performance


  • Standards of attainment over time
  • Overall quality of learners' achievement

2.1 Impact on learners: Learners' experiences


  • The extent to which learners are motivated and actively involved in their own learning and development
  • Delivery of education

Quality Indicator: Delivery of education:

5.1 The curriculum


  • Programmes and courses
  • Transitions

5.2 Teaching for effective learning


  • The learning climate and teaching approaches
  • Teacher-pupil interaction including learners' engagement
  • Clarity and purposefulness of dialogue
  • Judgments made in the course of teaching
  • Tasks, activities and resources
  • Identification of learning needs

5.4 Assessment for learning


  • Planning learning experiences and activities

5.5 Expectations and promoting achievement


  • Learner expectations and sense of achievement
  • Promoting and sustaining an ethos of achievement

5.6 Equality and fairness


  • Approaches to inclusion
  • Promoting equality and fairness
  • Ensuring equality and fairness

5.8 Care, welfare and development


  • Approaches to and provision for meeting the emotional, physical and social needs of children and young people
  • Delivery of education

Refer to HMIEEducation for Pupils with Autism Spectrum Disorder Recommendations 3, 4, 5 and 8

  • ASD is a developmental disorder and therefore developmental life transitions may be out of step with typical development.
  • As part of the developmental profile of abilities an ASD specific assessment can indicate in certain areas of functioning (for example imitation) a severe delay in development.
  • The impact of this developmental delay may result in the pupil with ASD being placed in an environment that they are not 'developmentally ready for' or have yet to acquire the skills to enable them to adapt, cope or even function adequately. This can translate into a conflict of expectations from parents and teaching staff.
  • Bear in mind the scattered profile of abilities and how this can be associated with typical development. Using typical development as a guide provides insight into why the pupil behaves in certain ways based on their developmental functioning. Observations gained from assessing developmental functioning enables teachers to develop programmes targeting these levels thus providing greater scope for successful planning and intervention.
  • Assess individual skills separately (i.e. imitation skills, cognitive verbal performance, nonverbal communication etc) against typical development and focus interventions and teaching strategies accordingly.
  • ASD specific assessments are available (Pep3, AAPEP and TTAP, Section 6 - Resources 39, 52) and provide a developmental profile of skills. Knowledge of the pupil's developmental profile.
  • For a pupil with an ASD typical adjustments to transitions may follow a different pattern to that of typically developing children. Transitions may be extended; elongated or delayed (an example of this may be seen through the pupil taking several months to adjust to the changing school year).
  • There should be an expectation that pupils with an ASD plus additional learning disability will possess a range of skills significantly younger than their chronological age and their peer group.
  • There may be a delay in the pupils capacity to deal with the impact of their own emotional states (an example may be that they do not respond to stereotyped messages, i.e. 'too big to cry').
  • There should be an expectation that the child will not necessarily 'naturally' develop emotional management skills and these may need concrete teaching (this can be achieved through visual teaching, for example a 'feelings thermometer' or the 'angry volcano').
  • There may be a delay in achieving an appropriate level of behavioural responsibility (the ability to take on personal responsibility for ones own actions).
  • The pupil may be delayed in their development of acquiring personal responsibility skills in relation to self-help and personal care.
  • There may be a further delay in the pupil acquiring extended personal skills (for example they may not possess the skills of safety or organisational management that would enable them to complete home work or travel independently to and from school).
  • The ability to self-advocate may be a delayed or underdeveloped skill and therefore providing structured opportunities with a focused agenda to achieve this may be beneficial for the pupil with an ASD. The development of self-advocacy forums (i.e. 'pupil forums') where initially the concept of 'self-advocacy' is taught with visual adaptations that assist the pupil to 'put their view forward'. It is worth bearing in mind that this concept may be interpreted rigidly and the pupil will need to also understand that there are times when they may self-advocate, but this does not necessarily mean they will automatically receive a positive response - think beyond the actual immediate teaching to the possible longer term impact of the child's ASD (look at all aspects of teaching new skills and think contingency plans!).
  • Development of personal interests may be out of synch with their peer group (there is acceptance of young children watching, collecting and playing with fire engines, less tolerance, rejection and ridicule may be the experience for an adolescent following this interest). A pupil with ASD may appear to get stuck with a fascination or interest that is usually associated with a much younger child.
  • Transitions of loss and bereavement may be atypical and result in delayed, unconventional or no apparent response.
  • Channel times for indulging in own specific interests if this may make the child susceptible to being bullied and teach similarly matched age appropriate alternatives (bear in mind that the social and developmental age may be significantly younger than their peer group).
  • Concretely teaching the concept of 'loss' is critical for all children, but particularly for the pupil with an ASD as this is an abstract concept that one achieves through experience. A useful concrete way of doing this may be through the concept of 'broken'. (an example is outlined here: Allow the child to experience the 'loss' of a broken toy, let the child see and hear your explanation of the toy being broken and then jointly dispose of the toy explaining that 'the toy is broken, so we throw it away and we wont see it again'). This may help to develop their understanding of loss and bereavement.
  • The impact of separation may be atypical (the pupil may not appear to respond to the separation of parents; they may appear to show signs of 'stranger anxiety' for an extended period of time).
  • There may be resistance to physical changes (i.e. voice breaking, secondary sexual characteristics).
  • Concretely teaching the different aspects of separation may be necessary in an educational context as a means of teaching the pupil what separation and reunion can mean. When teaching concepts out of context (i.e. divorce) to pupils on the spectrum think of this teaching opportunity as a fundamental step to their 'social and life translation'. Facilitate the development of life dictionaries; social understanding (life concepts) 'portfolios' these can act as concrete reference points to aid their understanding of social situation either at the time or later on in their life if they experience such an event.