“Secondary School does not have to be Scary”

Developing a framework for the transition of students with ASD from primary to secondary school 
Presented by Matthew White at the ASPECT Autism in Education Conference 31 July-1st August 2014
The transition from primary to secondary school can be a time of anxiety and trepidation for many students and parents (Dixon & Tanner, 2013). However, for parents and students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) transition to secondary school can be even more challenging due to their inherent social and communication difficulties (Fortuna, 2014). The NSW Government inquiry: ‘Transition support for students with additional or complex needs and their families’ highlights many issues parents, teachers as well as students with ASD face in the transition process. (NSW Govt, 2012). A submission to the inquiry by Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia (A4) (2011) outlined that:
“typically, minimal effort goes into deciding and/ or preparing the destination of each transition; then the details are left to be “worked out” when the student arrives in the new setting”(p.4).

Whilst this is a very generalist political statement, and good transition processes are in place across many schools, evidence would suggest that this is not pervasive amongst all education settings in Australia (A4, 2012; Stevenson, 2011). There are an overwhelming number of guides and anecdotal evidence on the transition of students with ASD however there are very few scientific evidence-based frameworks on the transition of students with ASD. This could be partly attributed to the heterogeneous nature of students with ASD (Dillon & Underwood, 2012). In developing a framework that would meet the diverse range of students with ASD joining the College, I noticed an uncanny resemblance to mergers and acquisitions that go on in the corporate world. The second half of my presentation will be drawing out the similarities through a case study of my own College. Therefore my presentation will have two parts; firstly presenting the evidence-based research present on transitioning students with ASD and secondly presenting a case study of the framework I promote and employ at my College.

The impact of ASD on students transitioning from primary to secondary schooling

Students with ASD have spent the past seven years mastering the social and institutional conventions of their primary schools only to be faced with a new and even more complex set of social and organisational conventions a secondary school brings. For teachers, the prevalence and diversity of ASD presents challenges to even the most flexible secondary inclusion policies. Therefore it is imperative that schools have robust transition frameworks in place backed by evidence-based practice. An evidence-based practice can be defined as an instructional strategy, intervention, or teaching program that has resulted in consistent positive results when experimentally tested (Simpson, 2005).


The triad of difficulties (Communication, socialisation and restricted interests) students with ASD experience each have an impact on the success of a student with ASD surviving and thriving in secondary education (Fleury, et al. 2014). Difficulties in communication can lead to students being misunderstood and when combined with the increasing complex social demands of secondary school can lead to social isolation, bullying and difficulties with peer relationships (Fortuna, 2014). The move from a single classroom to multiple teachers on a timetable can result in the loss of a support point that students with ASD may have come to rely on. Reliance strategies the student may have relied on in primacy school may leave them less prepared for the changes they will face in secondary school. This is particularly the case with some students and parents presuming they will have the same level of adult support that they had in primary school (Bailey and Baines, 2012). It has also been argued that having many teachers can lead to the loss of expertise and understanding of the student’s needs at an individual teacher level (Dillon & Underwood, 2012, p.112). Enhanced anxiety levels and problems coping with change in the environment and routine has been widely validated by research and is manifested in problematic behaviour and schools refusal (Hannah & Topping, 2012).

Paradoxically the very nature of a student with ASD difficulties is a key ingredient to successful transition.  When examining current research and practice, in light of my own experience, a common thread that reappears is communication and relationship.  Whilst supporting the student’s development of relationship with his or her new school, teachers and peers is important, the management of relationships between parents and the new school within the transition process is just as crucial to success.

Literature review:  the transition of students with ASD from Primary to Secondary

Given the difficulties that students with ASD face when managing change, an emphasis on planning in stages is crucial to the transition process. Despite the breadth of research on evidence-based practice supporting students with ASD in schools and student transition, there is limited evidence-based research of frameworks for transitioning students with ASD from primary to secondary school (Dixon & Tanner 2013; Adreon & Durocher, 2007; Adreon & Stella, 2001). A recent study by Dixon & Tanner (2013) exploring the experience of transitioning two adolescents with Asperger Syndrome does go some way in bridging this gap. A major finding of the study was the lack of well-organised, systematic and ongoing collaboration between stakeholders and especially parents. Parents reported frustrations and anxiety that the knowledge that they had regarding their child’s needs was not valued or acknowledged (p.41).  As expected, key stakeholders had differing priorities, however, what was highlighted by the researchers was that there was no mechanism in place to articulate these priorities as a collaborative team. There was also no evidence of the value of collaboration with the students involved. Similar to a study carried out by Hay & Winn (2005), consultation with parents and students occurred in the ‘process’ and ‘post-transition’ phases when the “students with ASD were causing concern” (Dixon & Tanner 2013, p.41).  A study by Dillon & Underwood (2012) exploring the perception of parents towards their children with ASD transitioning found that pre-transition parents made significantly more negative referents to the process than parents interviewed at post-transition.  The perception of secondary staff feeling ill prepared and equipped to teach students with ASD further adds layers of complexity to secondary transition (O’Rourke & Houghton, 2008). Whilst these studies are small scale they do put weight to the argument for the development of an evidence-based framework for the transition of students with ASD.

Developing an Evidence-Based Framework to Manage Transition

In order to develop an evidence-based framework for successful transition we need to envisage what a positive transition would look like. As secondary schools, as organisations, grow they are increasingly ‘borrowing’ from the corporate world when seeking to manage change and develop educational leadership. When examining the term ‘transition’ a compelling commonality was drawn between student transition and company mergers.  It was intriguing that the language used to describe the management of an organisation merger and the emotion experienced by managers and employees caught in the midst is very similar to that of teachers, parents and students transitioning from primary to secondary school.

To demonstrate the resemblance between a company merger and the way we could think about the student transition process an extract from Hill & Weiner (2008) is provided.  If you replace the word ‘companies’ with parents and students a resemblance can be made with the process (Planning, Process & Follow up) outlined by ASPECT in its submission to the NSW transition inquiry (ASPECT, 2011, p.10). 

To illustrate this process and provide a model for schools to draw upon an analogy will be presented of the merger (transition) of a student with ASD and a new secondary school. The typical merger process follows five steps (Galpin, T & Herndon, M. (2008)

Setting the Scene: around the beginning of Year 5 the student and parents are caught in the midst of a merger from the relative comfort of culture A, their local primary school, to the unknown and much larger Culture B, the secondary College. The teachers and administrators in Culture B have heard the merger is underway and are anxious how this merger might impact upon their complex culture. However, they are happy to accept the student and parents to the new school community. The Learning Support Department from Culture B is warm and listens to the parents, teachers and student from Culture A so that they can adapt and provide support for the student and parents. The resultant is a third culture that is characterised by a shared understanding and developing relationship between the student, parents and teachers within the new organisation. 

Formulate:  In the formulate stage a student needs analysis is carried out by parents and primary teachers to develop a strategy for transition. There are many templates available online under the headings of ‘planning matrix’, student needs analysis etc. A planning matrix identifies the characteristics of the student’s autism and how these impact on the student within a school’s setting. It also outlines key strategies that work for the student. This process is often carried out at the same time as an Individual Profile (IP) collaborative meeting. In collaboration a strategy is developed to formulate what is needed for successful transition and inclusion to take place in a secondary school.

Investigate: Also around the beginning of Year 5 a collaborative discussion is held with parents, student and primary teachers to decide on possible options for a placement. In a merger this would be termed ‘due diligence’. Due diligence can be thought of as asking the right questions and formulating a detailed picture of the new organisation and how a merger would work. Some areas to investigate include (see link below, Leicestershire Autism Outreach Service):

  • School environment
  • Staffing
  • Other Children
  • Ethos 
  • Timetable
  • Curriculum   

For a secondary school this being open and transparent to what you can and can’t offer. We offer the parents a tour of the school if an open day is too far away. In preliminary discussions it is important that secondary school staff do not set up unrealistic expectations of support or programs offered.

Pre – Merger Negotiations: towards the end of Year 5 and early Year 6 a secondary school should have been identified. Once a school has been identified a meeting with the special education coordinator can take place and the student will visit the school to get a feel for the new environment. This stage is marked by some agreements of support from the secondary school under its obligations through the Standards for Education 2005. This stage can be daunting for parents who may not feel comfortable negotiating with the secondary school. The nature of institutionalised education means no school is going to be a perfect fit for every child so some compromise and negotiation will be needed from both sides. Secondary schools that have inclusive cultures and practices will find this part of the process much easier. This phase can be a time of relief and also trepidation as all parties prepare for the next phase. 

Collaborate: During the collaborative phase of the merger both schools and parents prepare the student for the merger. In New South Wales (NSW), Australia, the ‘Middle Years’ strategy 2006–2009 has identified transition as a key factor influencing the continuity of learning for all students (NSW DET 2006). Therefore there are many great programs available to prepare students for secondary school. A commonality between many of the programs is the development of a passport for the students. The passport is a portfolio of activities and information about their new school the students carry with them to guide them through the process. Before the passport is introduced a collaborative meeting is held with the primary and secondary school staff, parents and student to ensure everyone has a good awareness of the transition plan. Positive Partnerships offer a template (see link below) and comprehensive guide that staff can use. It is essential that this process starts in a timely manner.

Considerations when developing a transition plan (see positive partnership)

  • meet with key stakeholders and parents to develop the plan
  • provide enough time to carry out the plan, as the student may need several visits over the previous semester  if changing schools
  • develop a calendar or diary - determine dates
  • use the calendar as a countdown to visits
  • plan what activities/areas will be the focus of each visit
  • Who will the student meet and where?
  • take photos of the new classes, library, canteen environment, visual school rules and boundaries
  • create a map and use colours to highlight areas of interest
  • establish a safety net and mentor or buddy system
  • handover existing supports to new school/staff
  • provide a copy of supports created for home
  • discuss how home-school communication systems  will operate in the new setting

During this process staff training is crucial for the success of the transition. In Dillon and Underwood’s (2012) study, parents expressed that teachers did have an adequate level of understanding towards the difficulties experienced by a student with ASD. Teachers’ thinking was often too rigid with many adopting a “one size fits all approach” (p.117). Therefore along with generic staff training, a briefing process with multiple points of access (individual profiles, support staff briefing teachers, online database, emails etc) is crucial to ensuring staff members are aware and informed.

Integration/ Inclusion: There is a growing body of research mapping evidence-based practice for the full inclusion of students with ASD (Konza, 2008; Brigg, 2009; Gulberg et al, 2011; Fleury et al. 2014). Whilst support is provided early on during the transition phase it is important that all stakeholders have an open mind and remain positive during the first few weeks (this includes teachers). It is expected that the relationship will have been developed during the collaboration phase of the transition. Therefore the first IEP meeting (generally week 3-4) is a time for feedback and problem solving. If things are not going to plan, the support teachers with the classroom teachers and parents work collaboratively to develop solutions. This process can be difficult for parents who do not feel that they have the same connection to the secondary school as they did to the primary school. Therefore is it up to the secondary school to foster and develop this relationship as a business would do with its new clients.

Despite the large number of guides and advice there are limited evidence- based frameworks to guide teachers supporting students and parents through the primary to secondary transition. 

The research from studies of parents who have gone through the transition process tells us that the lack of information regarding the process is a cause for anxiety both for the student and parents. Schools have a responsibility to acknowledge that students with ASD require additional transition support. What is needed now is for these frameworks to be validated through research and promoted as the minimum standard for the transition of students with an ASD.

Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia (A4) (2011)Submission for the Inquiry into the transition support for students with additional or complex needs and their families. Submission No. 38
Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT) (2011) Submission for the Inquiry into the transition support for students with additional or complex needs and their families. Submission No. 7
Dillon G. Underwood, D. (2012). Parental perspectives of students with autism spectrum disorders transitioning from primary to secondary school in the United Kingdom. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities; 27: 111-121.
Dixon, R. & Tanner, K (2013). The experience of transitioning two adolescents with Asperger syndrome in academically focused high schools [online]. Australasian Journal of Special Education, Vol. 37, No. 1: 28-48. 

Fleury, S. Hedges, K. Hume, D. M. Browder, J. L. Thompson, K. Fallin, F. El Zein, C. K. Reutebuch, S. Vaughn. (2014). Addressing the Academic Needs of Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Secondary Education. Remedial and Special Education; 35 (2): 68 DOI:10.1177/0741932513518823

Fortuna, R. (2014): The social and emotional functioning of students with an autistic spectrum disorder during the transition between primary and secondary schools. Support for Learning. 29 (2) pp.177-191 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9604.12056
Galpin, T &Herndon, M. (2008) Merger repair: when M&As go wrong, Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 29 Iss: 1, pp.4 – 12
Guldberg, K. Parsons, S. MacLeod, A. Jones, G. Prunty, A. & Balfe, T. (2011) Implications for Practice from ‘International review of the evidence on best practice in educational provision for children on the autism spectrum’, 26 (1), European Journal of Special Needs Education, pp 64-70. DOI: 10.1080/08856257.2011.543534
Hannah, E & Topping, K. (2012). Anxiety Levels in Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder Making the Transition from Primary to Secondary School. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 2012, 47(2), 198 –209
Hill, R & Weiner, S (2008). Seven Steps to Merger Excellence. Ivey Business Journal. Online http://iveybusinessjournal.com/topics/the-organization/seven-steps-to-merger-excellence#.U7ow1vmSzi4 (accessed 03/07/2014)
John Brigg (2009). The Approach to the Education of Students with Autism in Australia. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 33, pp 1­5

Konza, D. (2008). Inclusion of students with disabilities in new times: Responding to the challenge. In P.Kell, W. Vialle, D. Konza, & G. Vogl (Eds.), Learning and the learner: Exploring learning for new times (pp. 39–64). Wollongong, Australia: Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong. Retrieved from http://ro.uow.edu.au/edupapers/36/
NSW Department of Education and Training (2006) Our Middle Years Learners - Engaged, Resilient, Successful An Education Strategy for Years 5 - 9 in NSW 2006-2009

NSW Government (2012). Final Report, Transition support for students with additional or complex needs and their families. 

Stevenson, (2011) Parents of disabled children rebel against suspensions. http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/parents-of-disabled-children-rebel-against-suspensions-20110706-1h2p0.html

Stevenson, A. (2011)Parents of disabled children rebel against suspensions. Article Sydney Morning Herald July 7th 2011." http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/parents-of-disabled-children-rebel-against-suspensions-20110706-1h2p0.html
Simpson, R. (2005). Evidence-based practices and students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 20(3), 140-149.

Positive Partnerships
Planning Matrix
Transition plan
Leicestershire Autism Outreach Service: resource created by - Abi Steady and Rhiannon Roberts

Supporting transition from primary to secondary school for pupils on the autism spectrum.
QLD Government Transition Pack for families, teachers and learning support
NSW Parents Council: Choosing a school for your special needs child
Victorian Government START (school transition and resilience program)