Moving school at any stage is never easy. The move to secondary school can be especially difficult – going from being the eldest to the youngest, from one teacher to many and from small amounts of work to large amounts of work!
For those of us who are autistic, it poses many additional obstacles, namely in terms of meeting a cast of different people, being introduced to a whole new level of learning, and processing an entirely unfamiliar environment.
In this section, you can read about what you can do, as an autistic student, to manage your transition from primary to secondary school.
HOW CAN I PREPARE FOR THE CHANGE?
In advance of the school year, establish that the school’s staff are aware of your needs. Consider using a journal or preparing a brief list for each teacher detailing the challenges that you or your child face, either in general or specific to that particular subject. It’s also worth including on such lists what strategies have worked well in helping you cope to date.
When selecting a school, do your research. Learn about its culture and get a feel for its policies for students with special educational needs. Plan a visit to the school, several times if need be, to have a look for yourself at its layout and facilities. Meet and take photographs of key people, with their permission, who will be involved with the transition. Talk to other parents of autistic children about their own experiences of schools and the transition process.
Ensuring that everyone at home is up to speed with your IEP and how you plan to do your homework is crucial for making smooth transition into your new school. Keep your family regularly informed about how things are going at school and let them know if you’re experiencing a problem, no matter how small you might think it is. They know you better than anyone, so it’s a good idea to have them closely involved so that they can advocate on your behalf and advise your teachers on what supports would suit you best.
The school can only implement changes or amend supports that you’re already receiving with your family’s consent.
Write or talk out your worries with a trusted family member or friend by doing a ‘What If’ exercise. You’ll be able to cover most of your bases by outlining what’s worrying you the most and having a plan to follow in the event things don’t go according to plan. It’s also advisable to show what you write down to your Resource Teacher an or SNA. They’re trained professionals and will be able to help you right there in school if the worst should ever happen.
If accessing or using transport is a challenge, then you may be able to avail of the Department of Education and Skills’ School Transport Scheme. Travelling, especially by public transport, can be one of the hardest challenges autistic people face in their daily lives. The Scheme exempts children with recognised special needs from the usual charges and facilitates an autism-friendly setting for using school transport.
Journeys to and from school, as well as their timetables, are ran by Bus Éireann. Any school recognised by the Department of Education and Skills may participate in the Scheme, be the mainstream or special sector. You can read more about the Scheme and download an application form here.
You’ll need a wider variety of equipment for new subjects at secondary school, especially for ones like art and design, maths and technology. Remembering to bring these in on specific days can be tough during your first year of secondary school and it’s perfectly normal for all of us to forget things. That said, there’s higher expectations on you as a student at this stage so some teachers may not be so understanding if you don’t explain your needs to them or have backups in place.
Consider bringing backup supplies to the school to have in the event you forget anything at home. You can certainly buy two sets for each subject if you’ve the money, but a cheaper alternative might be to get ones for the practical-based subjects.
Ask your family to help you draft social stories™ and graphs up for whatever situation that’s giving you the most bother. Autistic individuals like to prepare as much as they can for unfamiliar settings, so a social story explaining what to expect and how an event will play out can lift a lot of anxiety and make the experience far more positive.
These events can be as general as explaining what a typical day at secondary school looks like, to something more specific like how to use a new bus or train, or how to use the cafeteria during lunchtimes. Visual aids like these will help your teachers and SNA a great deal when explaining your needs to them and how they can help.
Another helpful tool is the use of a calendar. Mark the first day of school on a calendar or a planner you have at home to help organise your plan for getting ready. This works well when deciding what date is best to prepare yourself for trying on your new uniform or going out to buy school supplies like bags, pens, pencil cases and notebooks.
WHAT CAN I DO WHEN I’M IN SCHOOL?
Find a workspace that’s in a quiet place at home up and running as quickly as you can. Devise a study plan that works best for you with your family and special education team early in the year. Secondary school libraries offer a greater variety of books than primary schools’, and can offer a lot of help when studying; use its resources to your advantage.
Ask your teachers and SNA to ensure that homework tasks are written down and work closely with your parent(s) or guardian(s) at home in terms of meeting your deadlines. Before the start of the year, ask your Resource Teacher to see if some flexibility could be organised with your subject teachers about homework due dates.
Ask the school if they will implement, or already run, a buddy-up system, either with Fifth or Sixth Year students or those within your own school year. Your partner should be appropriately selected by a Resource Teacher, ideally having an open mind and an understanding attitude towards autism and the difficulties it may present within school.
The advantage of this system is that some level of personal support is always present whenever teachers and SNAs may not be, particularly outside of the classroom. It also provides autistic pupils with a less conspicuous way of availing of help and presents opportunities to engage more with their peers and develop social skills.
Autistic individuals function at their best when a structured routine is in place for them to base their daily activities around. Secondary school, being divided into planned intervals and timetabled periods for each subject, is a good setting to create a new and long-term plans like these.
Establishing a regimen to work off of, as early in the school year as possible, is recommended. It will save a lot of anxiety for everyone involved in the short and long term, as well as teaching you organisation and planning skills at a practical level.
Ask for an advanced copy of your timetable and work out how you can best prepare yourself for the days or weeks ahead. Use your homework diary as a planner and a checklist, coordinating closely with your SNA and or Resource Teacher when preparing to meet deadlines.
Are there any clubs or societies at school that might be of interest? Joining a group of like-minded people who share your hobbies is a great way of making new friends at any stage in one’s life. Many schools will run after-hours activity groups for arts and crafts, dance, drama, homework, languages, music and sports.
This doesn’t mean you should go and empty your pockets (or your family’s) on an instrument you’ve never played before or on the latest kit to fit with the school orchestra or GAA club. Go where your interests are. Sample different clubs – if one doesn’t suit you, move on to another one you might like. If there isn’t a club that suits you, look in to starting one yourself.
Black Sheep Press’ Talking About Secondary School iPad App
Irish Youth Foundation’s Primary to Secondary School Transition Programme
National Council for Special Education’s Guidelines on Moving from Primary to Post-Primary School
Last updated: 20th September 2017
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