How School Transitions Affect Students With Autism


The last half term of the school year is one of my least favorites. Children are worn out, hot and irritable, adults are worn out, hot and irritated and everybody’s tolerance levels are stretched to the limit. Throw in the odd Sports’ Day to get everybody out of routine and socially stressed and things start to wobble even more. And then come the transitions.

In a special school it’s not like mainstream, where each class moves up together through each year group, and the teachers either stay put or move to a different age group. No, in a special school, we re-structure every year. Classes get tweaked to try and find the best fits for everybody to have the best possible opportunities for well-being and learning. But getting there is the tricky bit! There are three transition visits to our homes for the following year, and this is the taste of what is to come.

I get a double perspective on this transition period, because I share a label with many of our children. Autism spectrum disorder. It looks different in each of us, but it gives me an extra insight into how the children we care for and teach may be affected, whether they can show this or not.

At transition time last year, I reflected on its effects on me, and how this could translate in our children. The school asked me to share my thoughts, and perhaps they may be of use to others.

I think the biggest thing to understand is how huge the effect of change is, and how long-lasting it can be. After the first transition afternoon it took three days before I was back on the scale of what’s normal for me. And that is when there is nothing bad about the change. I know the new team are lovely, I know the children are lovely and I have worked with most of them before so I’m not walking in knowing nothing. I can rationalize all the good reasons why it is happening and it is positive. I understand what will happen and on what timescale. I understand that eventually I will feel better, even though I feel bad now.

Yet it still took three whole days, including a shutdown on Friday morning, for the effects to wear off. If a fully functioning (well, largely anyway!) adult in full time employment has to spend half an hour curled up on a changing bed in a dark bathroom, how on earth do we expect our children to cope?

I didn’t anticipate such a strong bodily response to just an hour and a half of transition, so maybe I could have prepared myself better, but our children certainly can’t, and neither can they rationalize the positives of change and reassure themselves that they will be OK in the end.

The effects of change and transition can last a very long time and may or may not be outwardly obvious. My theory is that arousal levels take much longer to decline in people with anxiety. In a non-affected person by the time the next problem comes, their stress will be increasing from their base level again, but for a person with anxiety their stress is already raised, so the peak of stress will be even higher. With each problem occurring this effect will be compounded if the stress level has no way to subside. One small incident may produce a disproportionate effect days later. The trigger is only the tip of the iceberg, and the main contributor could still be the transition.

After the second week of transition I coped better, and I have identified four contributing factors:

  • I took time out alone on my way home after school each day
  • I employed an emergency coping method which is very negative but works
  • There were no out of routine staff in class in the following days, where in the previous week we had all manner of lovely but different people in
  • A certain child having a really wobbly time was absent and therefore the atmosphere was much more relaxed

From these I have worked out that one way we can really help our children is by following the times of transition with really low demand, consistent, familiar, safe times (days) where stress levels can subside as much as possible.

With this in mind, one practical suggestion I could make is to plan transitions in the mornings rather than afternoons. I think the reassurance of the familiar afternoon routine would calm children and help their bodies and minds begin to switch out of high stress. It would also then be easier to gradually extend the time spent in the new class naturally.

It would help if children had a chance to meet new staff in their familiar environment or their current class first, so not everything is completely new when they enter the new classroom, and so that they perhaps feel safer. In some settings this may be tricky logistically, though!

Also bear in mind that children who appear to be coping may not be. You have absolutely no idea what is going on inside a person with autism (or anybody!) unless they tell you. They may or may not be aware themselves of whether they are coping.

People with autism do not cope well with the unknown or unexpected. A whole mental shift is required to accommodate the tiniest of changes that others may not even be aware of, so moving classes raises chaos in the brain. What happens when? What is kept where? Will these new people be nice? Will they understand me? Can I trust them? How will I get my needs and wants met? What is the social framework/hierarchy? What is acceptable here? Can I meet the expectations placed on me? Will they have toys and activities I like? Will I still see the people I like from my old class? Consider also “it smells different,” “what’s that funny noise?” “The walls are a different color,” etc. And that our children are unlikely to be able to process these worries cognitively, and may well only feel the effects physically without understanding that they are worried and why.)

It’s like a puzzle to piece together and work out where and how they fit in, as though you or I were to be suddenly deposited in a new country where we knew nothing of the culture and perhaps a few key words of the language. Sound exhausting? Definitely!

People with autism love routine for a reason, and it’s not because they’re rigid, boring and unimaginative, or because they are being wimps and need to man up and just try it. They love routine and the familiar because change is terrifying and exhausting: not just psychologically, but there is a physical bodily reaction that can be overwhelming and long-lasting.

Here’s to smoother transitions for children and adults this year, and hoping that something I have said will bring understanding to staff and caregivers, thereby easing the process for children beyond my school as well.

This story originally appeared on Square Peggy.

Getty image by A Grigorjeva.


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