Planning Successful Transitions | Organization for Autism Research

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Everyone must adjust to new environments. Sometimes these adjustments involve adapting to a new school, a new teacher, or other things that are different than what we experienced previously.

Transitions can be particularly challenging for individuals with autism spectrum disorders [ASD], as they often experience considerable anxiety when faced with new situations. Moreover, many individuals with ASD have difficulty understanding the expectations and routines in new environments. During the school years, transitions include moving from (a) home or day-care to preschool, (b) pre-school to elementary school, (c) early elementary school grades (K-2) to later elementary school grades, (d) elementary to middle school, and (d) middle to high school. The transition from high school to post-secondary education or work is one of the most significant changes that students face, one that requires considerable planning over a long period of time, typically several years.

Other commonly occurring significant school transitions include moving from a private school to public school (or vice versa), or moving from a special education setting to a general education setting. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the transitions within a given school from one year to the next also involve numerous adjustments. Transition planning is important for many types of transitions, not only those that are most frequently viewed as major changes.

In planning transitions it is often helpful to carefully assess the similarities and differences between the current environment and next environment. All assessments should include a careful analysis of the expectations in the current environment, as well as the supports and accommodations that are being provided in the current environment. This information should be compared to the expectations and available supports and accommodations in the environment(s) that are being considered for the following year(s).

For younger children, considerations might include safety issues. For example, some children are runners. Is this child a runner? What has been needed to keep this student safe? In addition, be sure to pay attention to the environmental expectations for maintaining behavior, paying attention, understanding directions, and independence (putting on shoes/socks/ zipping coat).

In third to fourth grade, careful attention should be given as to the organizational skills, work skills, academic skills, and social/emotional skills necessary to succeed in the environment. Organizational skills might include keeping track of homework assignments, gathering materials for needed assignments, and keeping track of papers (including papers going from school to home and home to school). The following are some of the work skills to consider: (a) Does the student need minimal or repeated prompting to begin working on an assignment? (b) Once started, will the student continue working? (c) How much clarification of instructions or other types of individual assistance does the student require during various activities? Academic skills to consider include the students’ reading comprehension, handwriting, and written composition skills. Considerations in the social/emotional arena include: (a) How will this student perform socially with less direct supervision during unstructured times? (b) Is this student a natural “target” for other students? (c) Can this student work successfully in a group? (d) How much does group work need to be structured in order for this student to be successful? (e) How well does this student handle changes? (f) What types of changes have been difficult for the student to handle? (g) How many changes does the student have to cope with in the current environment? (h) What specific supports have been necessary in order to help the student handle changes appropriately? (i) What tends to upset the student? (j) Does the student recognize when he/she is upset? (k) Does the student follow an adult’s instructions to remove him/herself from a situation? (l) What behaviors has the student typically demonstrated when frustrated or overwhelmed? (m) What has been necessary in order for the student to calm down?
It is also important to assess the demands and identify potential problem situations that may arise during unstructured or less structured times of the day. Unstructured or less structured times include the bus, before and after school, field trips, assemblies, and transitions times between classes, lunch, physical education, and recess. Consider the predictability of these environments, as well as the social demands, sensory issues, and motor expectations.

Organizational, work, social/emotional, and academic demands continue to increase as students move on to middle and high school. When moving from elementary school to middle school, it is likely that the environment changes significantly. However, the process of evaluating the necessary components for a successful transition remains the same – a careful analysis of the current environment and necessary supports and accommodations and identification of the similarities and differences between the current environment and potential next environment(s).
The following are suggestions of proactive strategies that can set the stage for a successful transition.

  • Begin transition planning early in the year. Have current school personnel assess current environment, student’s strengths & challenges, and necessary supports and accommodations.
  • Involve personnel/representation from next grade or new school in the transitional planning meetings.
  • If applicable, visit different programs/schools to determine appropriate placement options. Include school personnel who are currently working with the child when possible.
  • Compare similarities and differences in school environments and needed supports and accommodations for these environments.
  • Decide on next environment. Modify IEP/504 to address needed supports and accommodations.
  • Identify primary school contact for the parent to address any problems or issues that might arise.
  • Schedule dates and content of trainings for school personnel prior to the first day of school when possible.


Suggested Orientation Activities
  • Familiarize student with schedule in advance.
  • Provide student with pictures and names of all teachers in advance. School yearbooks can be helpful resource.
  • Arrange for student to meet teacher(s) & other school personnel prior to first day of school.
  • If the student will be attending a new school, visit school several times over summer.
  • Familiarize student with school routines such as going through the cafeteria line, waiting for the school bus, and following rules when walking in the hallways.


Transition to Adulthood

As previously noted, planning the transition to adulthood requires the greatest amount of planning. The following are a few suggestions to consider when developing and implementing a transition plan.

  • Become familiar with the differences between IDEA and ADA.
  • If you are considering transitioning to a traditional community college or university, consider fading supports that will not be available in the next environment.
  • Emphasize work/study skills such as keeping track of assignments, breaking down projects into smaller components, and establishing time frames.
  • While the student is in high school, have him/her become increasingly responsible for explaining his/her difficulties and needed accommodations to school personnel.
  • Arrange for work experience activities while the student is still in high school.
  • Consider having the student take a college course while still in high school or the summer prior to starting college.
  • Assess the student’s daily living skills and utilize breaks and summers to address skills such as personal hygiene, eating habits, and money management.
  • Provide opportunities for problem-solving in a variety of situations, since parents and school personnel will not always be immediately available for adults who are striving to live and work independently.

Diane Adreon has served as Associate Director of the University of Miami/Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities (UM/NSU-CARD) since 1993. She has presented nationally and internationally on Asperger Syndrome and has authored several articles on the subject. She is also the co-author of Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence: Practical Solutions for School Success which won the Autism Society of America Literary Achievement Award in 2001 and serves on the editorial boards of Focus on Autism & Developmental Disorders and Intervention in School & Clinic.

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