It’s almost that time of year again, when we see the mass migration of a whole year group to secondary school. There are almost 818,000 11 year olds in the UK, and while they won’t all be moving schools, allowing for some middle schools and home education, many of them will be. Naturally, it’s an anxious time for pupils and families.
70% of autistic pupils are in mainstream schools according to government figures1, though the statistics are almost certainly higher since not all autistic people are diagnosed while they are at school. In the UK, transition to secondary school takes place when the pupil is 11 years old, moving up to what is termed Year 7 at school. The government has designated that pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) should receive additional preparation for school transition2, but there is no national framework for what should happen, either for pupils with SEND or without. Research has shown that particular barriers to a successful transition to secondary school are bullying and not having support from friends and peers2, and both of these are particular issues for autistic pupils.
Autistic Girls Network and CEO Cathy Wassell ran a survey in July 2021 as part of her MEd in Autism (Children) at University of Birmingham. It asked “What are the experiences of transition to mainstream secondary school for autistic children?” In all 17 families (parents and their children) took part in a fairly extensive survey which looked into their experiences of transition. Unlike all other studies of secondary transition for autistic pupils, it was not necessary to have been diagnosed autistic while at primary school – in fact only 8 of the 17 had been diagnosed while at primary school. 13 of the 17 pupils were girls, while 4 were boys (the survey was open to non-binary and trans pupils but none responded as such) – this also differentiated the study from others in the same field, where the majority of respondents were overwhelmingly male. Our hypothesis was that the pupils who were already diagnosed as autistic at primary school would have a more happy, successful transition than those who weren’t diagnosed until secondary school – but the data did not support that hypothesis. Instead, both our study and a review of the relevant academic literature in this area pointed to individual, personalised planning and preparation by both primary and secondary schools as the main factors in a successful transition, along with friendships and relationships supporting the pupil.
Some of the things that autistic pupils find difficult about school transition are:
- Moving from a small primary to a large secondary school
- Moving around crowded corridors between classes
- Large dining halls – smell, noise, too many people
- A lack of structure at break and lunch times
- Social interaction with many unknown pupils
- Many teachers instead of one class teacher
- Strict school rules and detention
- More complex work and higher expectations around speed of processing
- More unpredictable class subjects like science or DT where pupils might be moving around
- More independent working expected without enough organisational help for someone with executive functioning difficulties
- Loss of their supportive peer network from a class that has known them since starting school
Given these points, and that secondary transition is a source of anxiety for all pupils but intensely so for autistic pupils, it makes sense that preparation, planning and getting to know the school and teachers before a September start is the best solution for a successful transition. Studies in the literature showed that school open days were not enough3, that extra visits were needed and that autistic pupils were much more likely to have a successful transition if they knew what was going to be happening, where and with who. Although transition might be understood as a single point in time – the first day of the new school – in fact the transition process should start at least 6 months earlier than that and for autistic pupils at least, it won’t stop until perhaps the beginning of Year 84.
Both the subject literature and our own survey highlighted the importance of friendships and relationships around this difficult time. Our survey in 2020 found that the period most autistic young people fell into crisis after transition to secondary school was by the February half term of Year 7, however those who moved up to ‘big school’ cushioned by friends seem to manage for longer. All young people need friends and peer support, but for autistic young people there is a compelling need to ‘fit in’, since many feel that they don’t fit in. In order to fit in, they need to feel as if they belong, and to do this they need friends, the support of their peers and the acceptance of at least some of their teachers5. All of these relationships are very important in transition. While a good relationship with at least one teacher is important, we need to remember that to lessen school anxiety, school needs to be a safe space, and that means young people need to feel safe there with all teachers. It’s all too easy for a poor understanding of autism to lead to a misinterpretation of reactions.
School-parent co-production was also found to be important in the literature review – schools who worked closely with parents and pupils to really get to know them and listened to them facilitated a much more successful transition. It also helps to recognise that all autistic pupils are individuals and a ‘one size fits all’ policy won’t work.6 As such, autistic pupils need to be involved in their transition planning. In our survey, all 17 pupils were reported as being more anxious than their peers, which would suggest that all 17 should have had individualised transition plans, but in fact only 6 were offered a different plan to their peers (3 who were diagnosed at primary school, and 3 who weren’t). At Autistic Girls
Network we also ran a survey on our Twitter page in August 2021, and only half of respondents had been offered a different transition to peers. Only 3 pupils had what they considered to be a successful transition, and these were pupils at schools who put in very detailed, individualised plans for them. 9 of our survey respondents did not receive the support which had been promised to them, differentiated or not. 8 of our respondents had been refused referral for an autism assessment, including the 2 girls who were diagnosed at age 17, both of whom had a very difficult and distressing school career. This is why recognising autistic masking, and how differently girls (and some boys and non binary young people) can present, is vital for teachers in both primary and secondary school.
These were some of the reasons given to our respondents for a refusal to refer for an autism assessment:
Tips to make a successful transition more likely:
- Transition is a process that needs to start well in advance of September, and continue throughout Year 7
- Transition support plans should be needs-based and individualised
- The autistic pupil needs to become as familiar as possible with their new school and teachers
- Moving up to school with friends can provide insulation
- Having teachers that seem to (even if they actually don’t!) understand the way you experience the world is very helpful and soothing
- Being listened to and involved in the transition planning is important
- A low sensory arousal environment is needed for autistic pupils
- Schools need to be ready to make reasonable adjustments as soon as they become aware of a pupil’s needs – on a case by case basis
- Given that Year 7 is often the school year where autistic masking breaks down and pupils go into crisis, teachers need to be aware of signs to recognise autism and what crisis may look like
Examples of possible elements in a transition plan:
- A colour coded map of the school, a timetable and pictures or videos of processes such as getting lunch can all help
- Summer school or activity clubs at the school before starting
- A buddy system involving older pupils – well supervised to make sure there is no bullying
- Send a scrapbook of photos
- A keyworker for extra school visits
- A visit to the dining hall to eat lunch with a support group prior to starting
- A support group
- Meeting the SENCO in advance and learning about chill-out spaces
- Break time support
- Whole school awareness to facilitate peer support
- Interest clubs to facilitate social mixing
There will be many more elements school could add which would benefit individual pupils – if you’ve come across some good ones, let us know!
1 Department for Education (DfE) (2014). Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice: 0–25 Years. London: Department for Education.
2 Evangelou, M., Taggart, B., Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P. & Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2008). ‘What makes a successful transition from primary to secondary school?’. Nottingham, United Kingdom: Department for Children Schools and Families.
3 Tobin, H., Staunton, S., Mandt, W., Skuse, D., Hellreigel, J., Baykaner, O., Anderson, S. & Murin, M. (2012), ‘A qualitative examination of parental experiences of the transition to mainstream secondary school for children with an autism spectrum disorder’ Educational & Child Psychology, Vol. 29 No. 1
4 Richter, M., Popa-Roch, M. & Clément, C. (2019) ‘Successful Transition From Primary to Secondary School for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Literature Review’, Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 33:3, 382-398
5 Coffey, A. (2013) ‘Relationships: The key to successful transition from primary to secondary school?’, Improving Schools, 16(3), pp. 261–271. doi: 10.1177/1365480213505181.6 Bagnall, C., Fox, C. & Skipper, Y. (2021) ‘What emotional-centred challenges do children attending special schools face over primary–secondary school transition?’ Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 61-184. https://doi-org.ezproxye.bham.ac.uk/10.1111/1471-3802.12507
Cathy Wassell is CEO of Autistic Girls Network, author, Masters student and proud parent of a fully neurodivergent family.