School transition tools for young people on the spectrum

After the dizzying activity of Christmas is over and the back-to-school sales hit the shops, what are the back-to-school challenges faced by families for whom autism is a daily reality?

For many young people, a mental shift is taking place as they look ahead to transitioning to a higher level of education in 2019. What can we do for Hawkesbury kids on the spectrum to make this transition as smooth as possible?

Autism specialist Berinda Karp has decades of experience in providing support for families. ”E.A.S.Y.” is a simple guide to help navigate times of change and adjustment. The acronym is explained below:

Early identification

Alternate learning environment

Social interaction

You (and/or your student)

Each letter in the acronym expands to detailed planning processes and helpful thoughtbites, and Berinda will be running webinars from January to walk parents through helpful processes and tools like E.A.S.Y.

I asked Berinda what the biggest challenges are for any person on the autism spectrum when they have to adjust to change. Her answer was immediate:

“The sensory environment. The behaviours that exhibit are anxiety behaviours, but underlying that are sensory issues. By exposing someone to the situation first, you’re helping to reduce that anxiety. Anxiety is about the ‘what-ifs’: ‘I don’t know what it’s going to be like’, or ‘I don’t know what’s expected of me’. We’re reducing that anxiety with the use of supported exposure.

“Kindergarteners have an hour here or there, or a half-day [for school orientation], but kids on the spectrum need three times as much as that. For high school, there are usually one or two orientation days. Well, you need six months of it. For university, orientation days are usually social and overwhelming.”

Berinda has suggestions for what teachers can keep in mind when assisting young people to join their learning environment. She advises teachers to start their new students in a safe, quiet and comfortable space. Mostly, she advises teachers to have an awareness of what the experience of transition can feel like for the student.

Berinda suggests, “They could set up a ‘cue system’ with the child; asking them, ‘Can you tell me when you need something?’, before a meltdown occurs. I’m not trying to say the person’s not allowed to have a meltdown, or not allowed to be anxious. Just have that conversation about telling you what they need. It’s about self-advocacy skills.”

So what’s the good news for young people on the spectrum who are leaving school to pursue tertiary education?

"The main thing is that they’re able to pursue their own interests. They’re free of the restrictions of the school curriculum. They’re also meeting other people with similar interests. However, without the structure of school, you need to have self-regulation and study skills and learn those skills beforehand. One really good way to do that is by visiting the ADCET website. There’s a booklet there called 'How to Transition to Tertiary Education'. I was one of the team writing that booklet. It’s a really good guide to work through and to see what skills you need.”

Berinda’s hopes for schools and tertiary institutions are that they will incorporate what she refers to as “universal design for learning”.

Berinda says, “Whether people are diagnosed with a “label” or not, everyone can benefit from it. You don’t always know the students in your classroom. Only 15% of kids who live with disability are identified. You could still have another 15% that aren’t diagnosed. You need to present your learning in a fashion that’s going to accommodate all learning styles.

How can someone use your E.A.S.Y. system to help adjust during transition?

"I ran a 'Transition to TAFE' course for ten years and it was evaluated by a Masters student to show a 100% success rate in course completion and in gaining and maintaining employment. The reason I developed this tool was that there was a strong cohort of people coming through the system who were on the spectrum, and an alarming drop-out rate. I also saw that it was not caused by academic problems but hidden curriculum issues. I ran the program over three weeks during November and December every year. We addressed anxieties, which we called ‘hiccups’. We called them hiccups because you do get over them! When you’ve addressed those hiccups and then go into the system and encounter problems, you’re more likely to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a solution!’ "

You can get in touch with Berinda via her Facebook page, called “Autism STEP Australia”.

Don’t forget to stay up to date with news of her upcoming webinars.

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