The transition from primary school to high school is a big leap for many students – it is another journey in their life and school career. Some children may be excited to try something new, meet new friends, and explore different subjects. However, for many students on the spectrum, it is a very difficult time. For many individuals on the spectrum, change is extremely hard to adjust to. There are a variety of subjects and structures that vary from class to class. Their friends may not be going to the same school, which can be scary.
As a community, there are things we can do to help Autistic students have a better experience at high school and make the transition a lot easier.
1. Listen to the individual
First and foremost, the Autistic individual is an integral part of this process and accommodating them must be done with their input.
2. Find out who the teachers for the year will be
When I was in year 7, it was highly stressful not knowing who my teachers would be. It may be good practice for the students to start writing to the relevant staff at the school, such as year 7 coordinators or administrative staff, and request that they have at least an idea of what teachers they might get. If the students are not confident in verbalising their concerns to staff (which is perfectly understandable), it may be necessary for parents to speak to relevant staff about the child’s needs and why it is important for them to know in advance. Visuals of the teachers such as photographs may help the student.
3. Having a buddy
Introducing us to another specific person takes some pressure off of the overwhelming social surroundings. For me, I had no friends from primary school, so having a specific buddy helped to provide structure to my socialising, especially as we shared similar issues. Particularly for girls on the autism spectrum, they may not relate very well to neurotypical (NT) girls which makes the whole process of socialising more confusing.
Buddies do not necessarily have to be assigned. If they are assigned, be aware that the Autistic student may not get along with their buddy. Make sure that you check in on the Autistic student as well as the buddy to ensure they are comfortable with each other. If the buddy is neurotypical, it may be worthwhile to explain that the student has trouble making friends or needs additional help. Notify the buddy and the Autistic student before placing them together and ask whether both are happy to do so. For some Autistic students, they may not make friends until much later on and will instead enjoy speaking to their teachers, especially if the teachers recognise their special interests. Remember that passions and special interests are a huge part of many Autistic individuals’ lives and consider this before choosing a buddy.
4. Quiet spaces and communication cards
I found it very challenging to ask for help. It was vital for me to have places to chill out and recharge when the environment in the classroom became overwhelming. I did so with a communication card that stated that I had permission to exit the classroom and spend time in a specific quiet area. It was signed by my principal. This took away the anxiety of having to explain the uncomfortable personal emotions I was feeling to my teachers. Trying to explain these emotions to teachers I did not have a rapport with made me feel very vulnerable. If possible, try and construct a quiet room for the student. Sometimes for us walking outside in Nature can help. Do not place us in a location that has other people in it, or is noisy such as another classroom, as this will create the same issues. Do not try and ask too many questions when the student is feeling distressed; wait until they have come back or the following lesson to ask them how they are feeling. Sending an email could be helpful as well.
5. Multiple copies of colour coded visual timetables
My executive functioning, particularly under stress, is very poor, so I would constantly forget where I was supposed to be. I had four timetables: one in my locker, one electronic version on my phone, one in my computer bag, and one at home. Even with this system in place, I would still forget; I learnt to go and ask a teacher or student whom I had bonded with.
- Students – Experiment to find out which way works best for you. Maybe you like using specific colours for particular subjects. Perhaps you require reminders on your phone for some lessons. If the system is not working, stop, reflect and re-evaluate. If you are struggling with finding a system that works for you, ask a teacher or your parent for help.
- Staff – Understand that executive functioning is a big issue for many of us on the spectrum. It greatly helps if you respond to our forgetfulness with an encouraging comment, such as “It is ok to ask me for help. A lot of us struggle to remember sometimes. What do you think would help you to not forget where your class is in the future?”. If you respond negatively, we are less likely to approach you for help in the future.
- Parents – Encourage your child to think about how they can help themselves. Suggest ideas, and help them reach their own conclusions. By helping them develop their organisational skills themselves, this will help them with their independence and self-esteem.
6. Have specific teachers to ask for assistance
These teachers are often ones whom we have already had conversations with. They also may teach a subject we are passionate about. It is important to reassure the student that it is acceptable to speak to a staff member they trust. Key staff members can make a huge difference in an Autistic’s school life. Remember – positive experiences create positive emotions that the student associates with you. The same goes for negative experiences. Autistics don’t forget easily, so keep this in mind when forming a bond with them.
7. Explain issues in writing
I am much better in articulating myself in writing even though I am verbal. Often when I was overloaded at school, words became too much. Students, if you are having difficulty expressing issues in the classroom, consider sending the teacher an email after class or writing down a note and handing it to them. If you have a trusted friend or buddy in the class, you could ask them to notify the teacher of how you are feeling. I was lucky to have very supportive NT friends at a camp, and when I could hardly speak and they worked out my issues they took initiative and told the teachers. The teachers then helped me debrief afterwards.
- Parents – Help your child articulate by emboldening them to email their teachers. My parent helped encourage me to explain my Autism to my teachers in writing. This required a few prompts, such as specific questions, which at times I would only answer in a simple “yes” or “no”. This helped me better understand how to convey my issues to my teachers. My parent did not write to the teachers for me – whilst I got help from her, I eventually got to the point where I felt comfortable emailing them myself if I had a concern.
- Staff – For the classroom, sticky notes can be useful for the AS student to write down questions if they have too many, or struggle to verbally ask for help. Do not assume that just because a student looks calm that they are coping – a lot of us, particularly girls, become master maskers by the time we get to high school.
8. Communication between school and home
What affects us at school can affect us in a different way at home, and vice versa. It is important for teachers and staff to communicate to one another as this can enlighten them on how a student is tracking at school.
9. Permission to have breaks and days off
I was told that it was necessary for my mental health to have breaks. A trusted staff member gave me this advice. It provided a sense of relief that I was allowed to take time off to recharge. It also helped me take my mask off as I felt like those at my school were considering the real me.
- Students – Do not feel bad or a failure for having to take breaks. Often us Autistics work so hard, as our brains are whirring so fast that we get exhausted. We are processing so much information all the time, and this means that we sometimes need space away from this barrage of information. For some of you, this may be an uncomfortable feeling, because you are so used to masking or running on very little energy. However, consider this – if you want to be the best version of yourself and be an effective learner, you need the energy to do so.
10. One-on-one tours in action
Prior to attending school, I got a chance to see my school operating. This gave me a chance to ask questions of current students and staff and made the place more familiar and less daunting. It is not enough to visit the school when it is not operating. In orientation week, I was placed with specific students every day which meant that even when our classes changed the following year, it was comforting to see a few familiar faces.
- Staff and parents – During the tour, direct the students to their subjects of interest and passion. Try and introduce them to the staff and students there, as we are more likely to develop a rapport with those who share our passions and interests. This could open up social opportunities for us.
Reflecting on my school years, my best moments have been spent by understanding and accepting staff and friends. This made my school life far more enjoyable. I will forever remember the teachers that were there for all my meltdowns, panic attacks, and achievements. Many were encouraging and supportive of my passions and I felt part of a community. Whilst there were some difficult times, I was not facing them alone. I wish for other Autistic individuals to have positive experiences at high school. I hope my insights based on personal experiences will help AS individuals be part of a more inclusive and accepting community.