Autism and Transition to high school

Autism and transition to high school – this can be one of the biggest milestones for children and parents. It is referred to as “a major ecological shift that poses considerable social, emotional, academic and organisational challenges” according to Mandy et al.

Indeed, even for neurotypical children there is ample research indicating a drop in engagement with school and a decrease in academic achievement in middle school (Stack et al, 2020).

Building resilience for the transition to secondary school

There are many differences between primary school and secondary school that complicate the transition process.

High school is often a much bigger place than primary school, in a new and further away location. It involves getting to know many more teachers, and students.

High school may be a place where there is more bullying. Moving from a small primary school to a large place can reduce the sense of belonging and inclusion. Teenagers often pick on students that look or sound different, and this teasing or bullying can be targeted at autistic students who stim or have repetitive behaviours to reduce their anxiety.

There are also big changes in executive functioning and academic expectations. In high school, students have to move around to different rooms, carry around different books to each place, and remember homework and deadlines. All this occurs within a day that has less time for regulation, movement breaks and calming moments. There are more subjects on offer in high school, which can be confusing and overwhelming. Plus the academic expectations increase, with students expected to work faster, produce more output, and rely on written evidence of their learning over any other form of assessment (such as verbal or observational which may be more common in early years education). Students are often responsible for their own locker, which may be in a crowded space and require a tricky combination or key to operate.

How do you help an autistic child transition to high school?


A big part of preparing for high school is getting familiar with the new environment. Take advantage of open days, tours, and transition days where you can walk around the school and become familiar with it.

Meeting new teachers in advance is also important. Autistics often take a longer time to develop trusting relationships with adults. The more familiar the people, the more comfortable the environment.

High school routines are different to primary school. There are different routines for arriving at school, for attending lessons, using a locker to store your bag, following a bell to move around to different classrooms, buying lunch at the canteen, and being organised with the books you need at break times. There are also break time differences, with high schoolers more likely to sit or walk around and chat, rather than play games in the sandpit, on play equipment, or games like chasey.

Social stories and looking at images of the school on their website can be helpful to familiarise autistic students with the social expectations of high school.


Talking about worries and questions is healthy and can help alleviate concerns.

Go for a walk or a drive – whatever you find works best to encourage open conversation. Walking side by side without eye contact can often be a productive way to open up conversation in a non threatening way when there are difficult chats to be had.

Ask your child if they have any questions about high school and do your best to answer them. This can give you a good idea about what they are worried about, what they don’t know, and where you might need to put supports in place.

If your child isn’t open to asking questions, you could try getting them to write a letter to a new autistic student, telling them what makes for a perfect start to high school. This one-step-removed process can help identify some of the concerns, strengths and worries that your child has so you can support them.


The best outcomes result from positive relationships between school and home. A little over-communication at the beginning to help teachers get to know your child is okay! Reach out to your child’s homeroom teacher and share what works best for your child.

The One Pager for communicating with school is a good place to start. It prompts for sensory/environmental preferences, communication hints, triggers, and what accommodations work well.

It may also be worthwhile asking your therapists to prepare a report for school, with suggestions for supports. If your autism diagnosis was a while ago, having a more up-to-date report from a psychologist can help teachers.


There are so many changes when transitioning to high school. But there will be small (or big wins). Celebrate them – whether it be attending 5 days in a row, or remembering to bring homework home, or being able to regulate in the classroom all day.

There will be tough days and struggles, so remember to focus on the growth and wins you are seeing.

If rewards are motivating, you might set up a reward system based around goals your child sets – around attendance, regulation, or academics. Rewards could be time on a preferred activity, or things like lunch orders. This can help provide the motivation to keep going and show resilience.

Other changes to consider in the transition

It’s not just changing schools that is different at this time. There are huge changes and things to learn. These include:

  • learning how to use public transport, independently travel, or take a school bus.
  • getting a bank account or debit card or managing your own money to buy lunch at the canteen.
  • using devices like a new laptop or tablet for learning, and using a learning management system or app for accessing learning materials.
  • going through puberty, with all the physical and emotional changes, attraction to others, and embarrassing body moments.
  • exploring your own identity, separate to parents, family and peers (while also moving from parents being the more influential to peers being most influencing).
  • social changes such as parties, drugs and alcohol, vaping, fashion, sexual exploration and other peer pressures.

Positive Possibilities for high school

Just as there are many worries around autism and the transition to high school, there are also possibilities for a really positive experience. Research from Stack et al collected survey responses from autistic students who said:

  • they enjoyed the opportunity to explore subjects of interest (e.g. science) in depth
  • having friends (or making new friends through common interests) is a protective factor that makes school fun
  • schools that were accommodating through breaks, sensory rooms, kind teachers, having wellbeing staff were successful in the transition
  • school fit is an important concept – you need to get the right fit between the child and the school and it can be better than primary school


Mandy W, Murin M, Baykaner O, Staunton S, Hellriegel J, Anderson S, Skuse D. The transition from primary to secondary school in mainstream education for children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. 2016 Jan;20(1):5-13. doi: 10.1177/1362361314562616. Epub 2015 Jan 9. PMID: 25576142; PMCID: PMC4702244.

Purkis, J and Goodall E. (2018). The parents’ practical guide to Resilience for preteens and teenagers on the autism spectrum. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, UK.

Stack Karen, Symonds Jennifer E., Kinsella William. Student and Parent Perspectives of the Transition From Primary to Secondary School for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in Education. 2020 (5). DOI=10.3389/feduc.2020.551574

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