Autistic children starting secondary school: planning and preparation
With careful planning and preparation, the move from primary to secondary school can be a very positive time in your autistic child’s life.
Planning and preparation for the transition should ideally start around the beginning of Year 6. It should include working with primary and secondary school staff on things like:
- a formal transition plan
- school-based supports and adjustments
- an individual learning plan
- orientation activities, social stories and other practical strategies to prepare your child for secondary school
- practical strategies to help your child cope with secondary school routines.
If you need help communicating or working with schools, a support person or disability advocate might be a good option for you.
Transition plans for autistic children starting secondary school
A transition plan for secondary school is a tool for sharing information about your child with secondary school staff. This information helps staff understand your child’s abilities, disability or condition, and learning and other needs.
A transition plan might include:
- a profile of your child, including their strengths and interests, health, medical and therapy reports, and your child’s current medical and therapy needs
- school reports, including your child’s learning preferences, strengths and challenges
- school-based supports and adjustments to help your child cope and be included
- practical strategies to help your child cope with this transition – for example, visual supports, social stories about transition, school visits and so on
- key dates, like orientation days or student support group meeting dates
- a timeline for each step of the transition process.
It’s also important to discuss and agree on how the transition plan and any other information about your child will be shared among secondary school staff.
Where possible, it’s good to involve your child in developing their transition plan. This gives them the chance to ask questions, raise concerns and share their preferences. This will also help your child feel valued and included.
Supports and adjustments for autistic children starting secondary school
As part of your planning, it’s important to talk with the school about supports and adjustments for your child at secondary school. You might want to share the types of supports that helped your child in primary school and find out how these might work in secondary school.
The school might need to organise other support services for your child and provide extra training to staff.
The school might also need to plan some adjustments so that your child can learn well, feel comfortable and be included in school life. These might include adjustments to things like:
- classroom environments, including physical set-up, lighting and noise levels
- subjects your child can study
- extracurricular activities.
It’s also good to talk with school staff about a system for communicating about your child’s progress and recording key decisions about your child. For example, you might have regular phone calls or meetings with the school’s special education coordinator, or use a communication app.
You can include these supports and adjustments in your child’s transition plan.
Individual learning plans for autistic children starting secondary school
Your child’s individual learning plan outlines learning goals for your child for the coming year and explains how the school will help your child achieve these goals. You’ll work with your child’s student support group to develop this plan.
Note that individual learning plans and student support groups are called different things in different states and territories.
Preparing autistic children for starting secondary school
One of the key ways to prepare your child for starting secondary school is to go to orientation days and programs. You can also ask for extra orientation visits so your child can meet key staff personally and get familiar with different areas of the school.
If you can organise these extra visits, it’s good to visit several times over a longer period 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.
Other practical strategies that might help your child to prepare for secondary school include:
- one or more social stories about secondary school – for example, you could write a social story about going to different classes or having different teachers
- a photo book of the new classrooms, library, canteen, school fences and gates, school signs and so on
- a map of the school with important areas highlighted – for example, the classroom, quiet room, photography club room and so on.
Practical strategies to help autistic children cope with secondary school
Your planning should also consider practical strategies for helping your autistic child handle the daily routine of secondary school life, 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 events.
Strategies that might help your child with these things include:
- a mentor or buddy system
- visual schedules to help your child understand their timetable and any other changes
- visual strategies to help your child manage books and other equipment – for example, colour-coding things according to subject
- strategies to help with break times – for example, excusing your child from class five minutes early so they can avoid the rush in the corridors
- strategies to help with free time – for example, encouraging your child to spend time in the library or computer room at lunch
- a key teacher or support person if your child needs emotional support, information or other help.
You can discuss these strategies with school staff and include them in your child’s transition plan.
Checking in on your child’s transition
During your child’s first week at school, it’s important to arrange a meeting with your main school contact to check that things are going as planned.
After a few weeks, you can arrange your child’s student support group to evaluate how your child is settling in and coping. This is also a good opportunity to celebrate your child’s achievements, maintain momentum, and plan for the rest of the term or year.
Your child’s transition and learning plans might be useful for planning your child’s next big transition – that is, from secondary school to another educational setting or workplace.