Transitioning to middle school: Children with autism

The school days were winding down. Like every year, the teacher had lots of record keeping to do before the last few days of school. That included preparing folders for those children from the structured for life unit (SFL) going on to middle school. It was hard to believe that Sarah and Brett were ready for sixth grade. Both of the students had been with the teacher since they were 6 years old.

Transitioning to middle school is an exciting time for many children but it can also be a real challenge too. For children with autism, routines are suddenly different when entering sixth grade. Brett was ready for the move. Sarah’s transition needed lots of preparation.

Brett’s comprehension and communication skills had improved dramatically since he was in first grade. While Brett had autism, the boy’s sensory needs were minimal. The child had a good understanding of daily routines and most importantly didn’t get upset with change. In fact, Brett was excited about sixth grade where he could see some of his friends that had moved on to middle school a year before.

On the other hand, Sarah had extreme sensory needs. Her communication was very limited. She depended on her IPAD for picture communication and had some limited one word vocabulary that she could orally say.

The teacher knew that Sarah would require frequent visits to her new middle school during the next several months to help the girl get ready for the change. Sarah required much more preparation than Brett for sixth grade.

Preparing for transition should include lots of visuals for most children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Social stories and pictures of the new campus are a must. Stories with pictures of the children going to the new school helped both students better understand that something was coming.

Taking Sarah and Brett on a field trip would help provide for a smoother transition. Making videos of the children going on the bus, entering the school and visiting the classes was equally important. This way, the two children could view the new school several times prior to the first day of school. Additional visits by the children’s families in preparation for the new school were important too.

The summer can be a long stretch of days before school starts. Preparing any child to go to a new school takes lots of planning. If sixth grade requires uniforms, wash them several times to make them softer. Making sure the child is comfortable in his new clothes is as important as getting the child ready to go into the new school. The students in the SFL unit had been wearing red and yellow shirts for eight years of their life.

Now, the colors were changing as were the shirt design. Brett was just as excited as could be to put on the new longhorn shirts. That was not the case for Sarah. She preferred wearing her elementary school clothes.

The parents were encouraged to bring the students to the school in early August when the school opened up. Practicing going into the school early was important for both the children. Good planning could make a huge difference between a good or bad start for Brett and Sarah.

Pamela Gross Downing, a special education teacher can be reached at