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 for pupils with autism: what does research tell us?

We know how difficult the leap from primary to secondary school can be. Planning and coordinating transition in the best interests of the child will be time well spent.

It is quite amazing how quickly time flies in the education world, let alone that of the SENCO.

We are now preparing for Year 6 transitions, along with GCSE exams and the other assessments soon to take place in the primary phase and have previously looked at transitions in a wider sense, focusing on:

  • large transitions: between school phases, from childhood to adulthood, to a new house
  • medium transitions: from school to home, from lesson time to lunchtime
  • small transitions: from one activity to another.

Dr Judith Hebron has recently published research on behalf of the Leverhulme Trust and the University of Manchester Simon Fellowship into the experience of transition from primary to secondary school for pupils with autism.

This is an area of interest for me personally and professionally, not least because I was involved in her study.

Why are secondary schools so different?

Judith highlights that the changes accompanying transition can be challenging for all young people, but may be particularly difficult for those with autism.

A higher number of students on roll (in secondary schools) puts the emphasis on relative ability and competition rather than on effort and improvement, and an individual’s relationship with their teacher is often less personal (a more detailed discussion of the differences between primary and secondary school can be seen in Coffey, 2013).

It is also important to remember that preference for routine and low sensory stimulation is often at odds with the (often) chaotic mainstream school environment, potentially making it a very stressful place for students with autism (Carrington & Graham, 2001).

Secondary schools therefore need to be more tightly organised, and in social terms, colleagues Humphrey and Ainscow (2006) indicate that upon arrival to secondary school pupils are moving from the protected top of the social hierarchy to the bottom of a much more complex one; going from the oldest to the youngest within different structures.

The only comprehensive review of existing literature on transition for young people with SEND was carried out by Hughes, Banks, and Terras (2013), who found that a mere 17 per cent of transition studies focused on students with SEND.

This is despite teachers and parents reporting that young people with SEND seem to have more difficulties at this time than their peers.

This casts doubt on the idea that transition is an area with a substantial grounding in evidence, which is why these recent studies are so crucial for developing our understanding of what the ‘best bets’ are with regard to supporting transition to secondary school.

What does this research suggest?

Judith’s study and other recent literature not only underscore the significance of transition as a critical point in a young person’s social and educational development, but also that a positive transition is possible.

Indeed, in Judith’s study, most young people with autism transitioned successfully to high school.

Judith summarises some of the elements we need to consider (with my thoughts after each point), and I think they offer an excellent starting point for SENCOs as we prepare for our new intakes in the coming weeks.

We should share good practice more frequently. Many schools have excellent transition programmes in place.

Talking to other schools and speaking to existing parents/carers about what worked well for them last year is an important element not to be missed.

Schools need to designate staff members to manage the transition of students with autism (as well as other potentially vulnerable students), and this needs to begin well in advance of the whole-school transition process.

Even with increasingly tight budgets and other external pressures, it is important that a designated member of staff can support good transition. Securing this foundation for secondary is possibly more important than ever.

Bespoke transition plans are essential for many young people with autism.

Thinking about how we can meet individual needs during the transition, often with individual visits, photos of key staff and developing supportive relationships with peers can significantly reduce the associated risks.

Parents, carers and students should be involved in planning transitions and given enough time to acquaint themselves with the new school and key members of staff.

We should have established working partnerships with parents/carers; this should remain the case for our new families. Often parents/carers can tell us about anxieties and potential challenges before they occur. A pro-active conversation can be such a powerful opportunity – don’t miss it!

It is important for the school to have an ‘autism-friendly’ environment that encourage diversity and promote understanding (a key element of which being peer support).

I have written about this at length: see Morewood, Humphrey & Symes (2011).

Schools must train all staff in autism awareness so that students can feel more accepted as part of the learning community.

​Professional development and training should be integral to a school's provision for SEND. Again, this means being pro-active. Taking time on the first day in September to highlight the needs and provision for individual students is a good way for SENCOs to give all staff a clear understanding of their responsibilities.

A school must not neglect the social and emotional aspect of transition, and its impact on a young person.

​Don’t ‘wrap' all the pupils into one, but instead take time to understand specific anxieties and address them individually.

An article of mine from 2014 includes a letter for a Year 6 pupil, who is now in Year 9 and doing fantastically well – at that time it was crucial for me to understand the social and emotional elements and address them directly.

Good transition is still good transition

We shouldn’t underestimate the value of a positive, coordinated transition from primary to secondary school. Judith’s points are unsuprising insofar as they identify what most of us would already consider good practice.

There is now a growing base of evidence to indicate that transition can work well for young people with autism if schools dedicate time to the appropriate planning and personalised support, as highlighted above.

A successful transition depends on many factors, each unique to the individual. However, Judith’s research illustrates that common to all transitions is the need to promote social inclusion through the school ethos.

Embracing difference and diversity throughout will allow the SENCO and other staff to get to know young people as individuals, which in turn will allow a better accommodation of their needs.

In addition, Judith’s research substantiates the notion that keeping parents and carers involved in the process, and remaining vigilant to social vulnerability and (potential) peer abuse, are additional requirements for a smooth transition.

If transitions are managed well, young people with autism can quickly feel a sense of belonging in their new school, which will shape a positive experience of education as they begin the next phase in their journey into adulthood.

For further information about her research, email Dr Judith Hebron at and follow her on Twitter @judithhebron.


Carrington, S. and Graham, L. (2001). 'Perceptions of school by two teenage boys with Asperger syndrome and their mothers: a qualitative study.' Autism, 2001 Mar; 5(1):37-48.

Coffey, A. (2013). 'Relationships: The key to successful transition from primary to secondary school?' Improving Schools, 16(3), 261-271.

Hebron, J. (2017). The Transition from Primary to Secondary School for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In Little, C. (Ed.), Supporting Social Inclusion for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (pp. 84-99). London: Routledge.

Hughes, L. A., Banks, P., and Terras, M. M. (2013). Secondary school transition for children with special educational needs: a literature review. Support for Learning, 28(1), 24-34.

Humphrey, N., and Ainscow, M. (2006). Transition club: facilitating learning, participation and psychological adjustment during the transition to secondary school. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 21, 319-331.

Morewood, G. D., Humphrey, N. and Symes, W. (2011). Mainstreaming autism: making it work. Good Autism Practice Journal 02.12.11, 62-68


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