The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

Transition into adulthood: moving from school to college

The transition from school to college can be daunting for any teenager. Gareth D Morewood shares the experiences of a former student with autism, and how she deals with the challenges she faces at college.

I am fortunate to work with some truly empowering young people and many fantastic families.  Growing in number, as our awareness and understanding increases, is our population of autistic girls. 

One of our students who left last year explains her experiences moving from school to college, from an #ActuallyAutistic perspective.

Ellen (not her real name) left secondary school in the summer of 2018.  She has enrolled at a local college and explains what the differences and challenges have been for her after the first term and how she developed personal solutions.

Ellen's story

I started college at the beginning of this year. I found some things quite challenging, but I was surprised with how easily I adjusted to certain things.

I found choosing a college difficult. We decided I should go to a college rather than a sixth form because we thought that if everyone else had moved through school together, then they would probably all have groups of friends already, and so I wouldn’t try to talk to them.

I had a choice of two colleges. I was lucky as I was choosing between two good colleges. In the end I chose by forgetting to send the paperwork back to the other in time!

Making decisions

College has a lot more choices than secondary school, which can be great. I haven’t been getting as annoyed with the fact that I have to do things I don’t want to, because I have more of a choice than I did in school.

But I also find making decisions quite hard. Even when the decisions don’t really matter, I feel like there’s a wrong decision and I don’t want to choose that one.

If I’m really struggling to decide then I use the decision tree one of the teachers at my secondary school gave me, and if I still can’t decide, and the decision is fairly irrelevant, then I’ll just use a random choice generator and let that choose for me.

Some of the new decisions I’ve had to think about are:

  • weather-appropriate clothing – having to think about the temperature and possibility of future weather can be difficult
  • what to do in free periods – there’s nobody there telling you what to do and so it’s very easy to not do any work.


At college you are expected to organise yourself, which can be difficult for people with autism. Unlike at school, lessons aren’t at consistent times and some lessons last longer than others.

Break and lunch aren’t written onto the timetable and so you have to remember to eat. Teachers put far less emphasis on doing homework so remembering to do it can be more difficult. You also have no uniform but must remember to wear your ID badge.

Overall organisation can be much harder than at secondary school, especially as there aren’t as many teachers consistently with you to help you organise yourself. Some of the things I’ve found helpful are:

  • colour coding timetables, to help see the difference between lessons
  • using my phone to set alarms
  • using a planner
  • having somewhere to store important information so that it doesn’t get mixed up when your brain becomes chaotic.

Making friends

Making friends with people is difficult when you have autism; you never quite know what to say or how to act. Being around other people can be far more tiring, and people with autism tend to only follow the rules written out for them, whilst being unaware of, or unwilling to follow, the ‘unwritten’ social rules.

Not really what most 1617 year olds look for when making friends.

At college you have much more freedom. If you don’t have a lesson you can go to the cafes, common room, coffee shop, you can even leave if you want to.

I have more of a choice than I did in secondary school

I find it difficult to be in all these places and so making and maintaining friends became harder still.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ve made any new friends, but people will talk to me, and so far, nobody has devoted their time to trying to annoy me. I don’t know if it’s because people are in different groups, it’s easier to get kicked out of college or if people have just grown up a bit, but people seem a bit more tolerant of others.

New teachers

I also have lots of new teachers around me. I get on with all my subject teachers, and all the support staff.

I wrote a letter that got sent to all my teachers before I met them, so all my teachers knew a bit about me. It wasn’t sent to all the teachers in the college (as most of them would have no idea who I am), so I keep some cards on my lanyard to make people aware of things like not to touch me, before they figure it out the hard way!

One of the main differences between college and school is that at college you have to ask for support if you need it. I have a wristband that is red on one side and green on the other to help me with this.

My biggest challenge 

The biggest problem I find with college is actually the bus. 80% of the time when I don’t want to go to college, it’s because I know I have to come home on the bus.

Buses are unpredictable: they’re often late, you have no idea how many people will be on them, how loud it will be or how long it will take to get to where you want to be. Especially after longer, busier, or more difficult days, being on a bus can be very overwhelming.

I often find it hard to remember which bus I’ve gotten on. Most of the time I haven’t got the slightest clue where I am until I get to my stop and I often have trouble being sure that I’m at the right stop anyway.

Because of this I often don’t want to go in, even though when I get to college I'm usually fine.

More freedom

Overall I quite like college. You don’t have to wear a uniform, there’s less things that you are forced to do and people are far more focused on their work because it’s what they actually want to do, rather than just what someone says you have to do, and it’s far more likely to be relevant to your future.

Listening to the students

Ellen's story has made me think even more about what we can do to help reduce anxieties and pro-actively support young people at our school and within the community. 

It also reminds me that listening to autistic students is essential!  This is why I wanted to share this story. I hope it offers some support to other young people facing similar challenges. 

Further reading

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