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7.1 Transitions and autism

Transition is not a single event, such as leaving school, but a process that unfolds over many years and involves significant emotional, physical, intellectual and physiological changes. During this journey, most autistic learners progressively assume greater autonomy in many different areas of their lives and are required to adjust to different experiences, expectations, processes, places and routines.

Whatever the form of change and transition, all children and young people are entitled to support to enable them to gain as much as possible from the opportunities which Curriculum for Excellence can provide, and also support in moving into positive and sustained destinations beyond school.

Transitions also impact on the family or on those who care for the child or young person. There are numerous types of transition that occur throughout the day, the school term, the year and across the lifespan as highlighted in Figure 17. It is not always the major (macro) transitions that have the most impact on autistic learners, 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 for increase in stress for learners and their families. In line with legislation, transitions should be planned well in advance.

Described image
Figure 17 Macro and micro transitions.

The extent of any impact from transitions will vary considerably for every autistic learner. This may be due to the levels of understanding, planning and supports in place, as well as the learner’s profile of strengths, skills and areas of difficulty.

7.2 Supporting transitions for autistic learners

When supporting transitions, large (macro) and small (micro) anticipate the support required for coping with change or with new experiences. Visuals can help prepare the learner for new places or unfamiliar experiences e.g. photos of the museum you are planning to visit or of their new classroom. At a calm time, support the learner to plan for upcoming events, helping them to anticipate what could happen and what strategy they could use to cope, for example:

  • If you know that they will have to wait an unspecified amount of time for a turn, plan what could they do while they are waiting (a visual support could help to remind the child in the moment).
  • If you are going to the theatre, plan for the child to sit on an end of aisle seat and have a plan for where they could go if they feel they need to leave during the performance.

Try to change only one thing at a time. If there is to be an unfamiliar adult taking the class, try to ensure that the lesson content and room are familiar. If the lesson is to be in an unfamiliar place, try to ensure that the people and resources are familiar.

7.3 Transition planning to support a school move

Moving to a new school is a big event in any young person’s life. For autistic learners, transferring to another school can cause fear or anxiety for the young person. Working together, parents and staff can help make this move a successful one by keeping in mind that the autistic young person needs predictability. Creating predictability about the school day will lessen anxiety and fear. There will be new challenges to face in a new school, but a solid support system and appropriate coping strategies will make the transition to a new school easier. Parents/carers and autistic learners need to know what support system the new school has and know who the key people in the school who can help when needed such as the head teacher, deputy head, support teacher, secretary, early years’ worker, support assistant.

It is important to share and discuss with an autistic learner, in a way that is appropriate to their developmental level, why they are moving to a new school. The reasons will vary e.g. it may be due to a move from primary to secondary school or a family house move. The autistic learner may not understand or appreciate the reasons for a change of school but try and talk about the positive aspects of attending a different school. During the discussions with the parents/carers, establish if these discussions have taken place prior to the move. School staff may need to be prepared to discuss feelings around the move with the learner and the learner's perceptions of the move.

When changing school, plan extra visits, starting when the school or classrooms are empty and quiet.

‘All about me’ profiles can be very helpful as it provides an opportunity for the autistic learner to share their strengths, likes, dislikes, adjustments which help them access their learning, etc.

Activity 19 Reflective Log

In your Reflective Log, consider the following questions:

  1. How well does my planning and support reflect the transitional needs of my autistic learners?
  2. How do we as a school community know that our ethos, practice and policies support the range of transitions our autistic learners experience?
Further reading and information icon

Resources to support transitions

A range of helpful downloadable resources have been shared by NAIT and some local authorities and are available on the Toolbox to support transitions. You can access them on the Forms and Resources section.

Activity 20


Here are some examples of large (macro) and small (micro) transitions an autistic learner may experience. Match the correct activity/experience with macro or micro transitions. For the purposes of this activity, the activities are split into the two areas. However, as discussed within this module, in practice these transitions and the extent of any overlap/impact will vary considerably for every autistic learner.

Activity/experienceMacro transitionsMicro transitions
From one area to another
New family members
Day to day
Making and changing friendships
Starting or moving school
From class time to break time and vice versa
Activity/experienceMacro transitionsMicro transitions
Loss Loss
Bereavement Bereavement
From one area to anotherFrom one area to another
New family membersNew family members
Day to day Day to day
Making and changing friendshipsMaking and changing friendships
Starting or moving school Starting or moving school
From class time to break time and vice versaFrom class time to break time and vice versa

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