Transition to school strategies for children with ASD

Transition to school strategies for children with ASD
Posted on Fri 13 Dec 2019

Written by:  Dr Hugh Walker, Clinical Psychologist – Clinical Lead of Adolescent and Adult Services, Diverse Minds BA Psych(Hons I) DPsy(Clinical) MAPS, Phill Baldock, Special Education Therapist, MEd.,BEd.,COGE. Small Steps Learning In collaboration with Cerebral Palsy Alliance.


One of the greatest challenges for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is change. And one of the biggest changes any child will face is the transition to school – whether that’s from kindergarten to primary, or primary to high school. For those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a new school environment presents a multitude of additional difficulties due to their sensory sensitivities as well as a need for routine, clearly defined rules and expectations in new situations. 

Dr Hugh Walker, Clinical Psychologist at Diverse Minds, in collaboration with Phill Baldock, a Special Education Therapist, and Cerebral Palsy Alliance (CPA), provides practical tips on how to reduce the challenges associated with transitions to school.


“The key to transition at all stages is to take it slow, steady and plan in order to reduce emotional and social stress and maximise learning potential from the start of each year,” said Dr Walker.


1. Establish a routine

Routine is the backbone for children with ASD, who tend to thrive on precision and predictability to feel safe and more in control. School is the perfect environment for routine – but it’s a whole lot of change to deal with at once. Establishing a morning, evening and weekend routine can help to manage expectations and minimise surprises. Where possible, introduce small changes slowly and praise your child for coping when they demonstrate flexibility.


2. Use visual stories to prepare

Visual stories can be very helpful to prepare your child for the big change ahead in a way they can understand. One great resource to check out is Social Stories™.  Create a project including words and photographs of the school building, lunch areas and key landmarks, as well as maps, classroom guides and teachers’ names. Your child will likely spend time processing the new information in the visuals, which may spark additional questions such as:

“Will that bully be in my class?”, “Where will I put my bag?”, “Will my teacher be someone I know?”, “What transport will I catch?”, “Is there a canteen?”, “Will the teacher know I hate loud noises?”, “Will the teacher have clear rules so I know what is expected of me in class?”, “Will the classroom have a chill-out zone when I’m overloaded?”

Anticipating and being able to answer these questions will help put your child’s mind at rest.


3. Help with organisation

Just before school starts, or during the first week, help your child get organised and simplify multiple tasks:

    • Visualise the morning, afternoon, and bedtime routine and keep in an easy to find location
    • create calendars for assignments and project due dates
    • outline steps required to complete an assignment
    • have one book for all subjects, colour coded for different subjects
    • use recording devices to record homework instructions if your child has auditory processing or writing difficulties. Ensure your child practises how to use the device.


4. Early handover meetings with teaching staff

Organise a handover meeting from the beginning of Term 4 between yourself and your child’s teaching staff. We recommend having a senior member of staff such as a principal, deputy or assistant principal, present, as well as your child’s year-coordinator to act as your primary point of contact for progress updates and troubleshooting. Also consider including learning support and pastoral care, particularly at high school.

If your child struggles with big emotions or has trouble making and keeping friendships, ensure this is included in their Individual Learning Program (ILP), along with strategies to support them to develop emotion regulation and social skills. Ask your psychologist or therapist to help with developing strategies or be present at the meeting.


5. Visit school with your child

We recommend your child visits the new school at least three times prior to starting the school term, to help familiarise them with the classroom and school environment. Ideally, the initial visit should occur after your child has viewed a visual at home, and when there are no or very few children present to avoid noise and movement. This could be after school, on weekends or during the holidays, and visit times could be between 10 to 30 minutes, depending on how well they cope. Depending on the first visit, the next visits can include observation of play areas, lunch areas, meeting teachers, and viewing the classroom while it‘s empty.


6. Autism Spectrum Disorder trained teachers

Check with the school whether there’s a teacher or staff member (such as Pastoral Care in high school) who’s trained and experienced in Autism Spectrum Disorder. It’s essential that your child has a trustworthy teacher to go to, especially for high school where they will have greater organisational demands, as well as hormonal changes that may impact emotion regulation.


7. Organise a responsible mentor

A buddy system or mentor is helpful at every school stage to help your child feel less anxious. When it comes to high school, you could ask for the ILP to include a mentor in a senior grade (such as a prefect, school captain, or student council member). This person can help your child to understand the “unwritten” school rules, such as how to wear the uniform, where the cool hang-outs are, which areas to avoid, and which teachers are strict. Keep the mentor’s responsibility for one or two small specific tasks so the mentor is not overloaded, and phase the mentor out slowly when required.


8. Chill out zone

Check if the school can organise a quiet area in case your child becomes overloaded during class, recess or lunch times, to avoid sensory overload or allow protection from any potential bullying. Also ask the school how they will help your child to build resilience and improve social skills so they can transition away from needing the chill out zone.


9. Curriculum adjustments

To avoid your child becoming overloaded, reducing class time or subject load may be helpful. In primary school, this needs to be negotiated with the teacher. Depending on your child’s strengths and challenges, high school adjustments could involve skipping Language, Physical Education or Music, and using this time to receive extra learning support for essays, projects, assignments or homework.  In the later years of high school, adjustment options include:

    • transferring to a Life Skills curriculum
    • learning at home by taking some subjects through distance education (particularly important for those with significant sensory, social and emotion regulation challenges), and
    • extending the HSC over two or more years through a flexible option called ‘Pathways’.


10. Homework exemption

Asking teachers for exemption from some homework may help reduce overload and stress. For example some students with slow processing speed may be exempt from homework, or only have to complete the odd numbered questions. Discuss with teaching staff to gain approval.


11. Nurture talents

Play to your child’s strengths. If they are talented in a particular area, extension work is a great way to keep them engaged in the classroom and show off their talents to others. It also provides opportunities for conversation, social skills and being the cool kid. For example:

  • avid readers or spellers would benefit from reading aloud to others in their own or a lower level class, or taking the spelling bee
  • keen builders would benefit from opportunities to have a rest break with DUPLO®, LEGO® or Meccano®
  • those with a strong interest in computers might spend some creating useful things for the class and demonstrating their skills


CPA is recognised as the leading provider of evidence-based therapy, and quality of life programs and services for people living with neurological and physical conditions, including autism. Diverse Minds, a dedicated Autism Spectrum psychology diagnostic team, is now taking appointments at CPA’s Allambie Heights campus.

Check out our Conductive Education (CE) learning program for children aged 0-6. This service can be funded by your NDIS package. 

Instead of having the fun-filled family Christmas I'd planned, we spent Christmas with COVID. Over the course of a week, all five of us got it, resigned to the fact that isolating from each other at this time of year, especially given how much I rely on other people for self-care, was a pretty fruitless exercise. 

An update from CEO Rob White on how CPA is supporting and protecting our clients during COVID-19, and CPA therapy and services in January 2022.

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