Autism & the transition to adulthood

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By Rai Fayette
on 27 October, 2017

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Transition to adulthood: supporting meaningful participation of young people with autism

Young people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) may have different means of communicating and perceiving social situations.

It is our job to ensure that they are given every opportunity to meaningfully participate in the planning stages of their transition to adulthood to ensure that outcomes and support are appropriately planned.

How does autism affect planning for the future?

Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) is a life-long neurodevelopmental difference that affects the way in which individuals communicate, understand social situations, and their information processing abilities amongst other things. Most individuals with ASC experience difficulties with conceptualising the future, which can make planning long-term goals challenging. They may also have a preferred communication medium and a unique way of understanding and processing information which is not accessible to other people, particularly those who do not know them well. Understandably, these factors can make planning for their transition to adulthood challenging. Indeed, previous research has found that pupils with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) were less likely to actively participate in their transition planning (Beresford et al., 2013; Hewitt, 2011).

While it is encouraging that the Children and Families Act and the associated Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice (SENDCoP) (DfE, 2014) promote the involvement of children and young people in the decisions about support and outcomes they want to achieve, there has been very little research-based guidelines as to how to do so with pupils with ASC.

The need to improve the transition experiences of young people with ASC was further highlighted by studies such as that of Knapp, Romeo and Beecham (2009), which found that poor adult outcomes such as difficulties in gaining employment and lack of independent living skills are linked with poor transition experiences.

What can we do to get young people with ASC involved in the process?

Findings from a recent study provide insight on how to meaningfully include young people with ASC during the planning stages of their transition from secondary school to 6th form or college. In this study, Fayette and Bond (submitted for publication) explored two specialist schools’ processes of meaningfully including young people with ASC throughout the planning stages of their transition to adulthood, by interviewing staff and observing a transition planning meeting.

They found that the schools’ transition processes were founded on a person-centred ethos, which means that they place each pupil at the centre of their planning. Both schools’ processes comprised of the following three phases (Figure 1):

Transition process chart

Figure 1: The Process

1. Get to know each pupil. 

At least one member of the schools’ teaching staff spent time with each pupil to get to know their likes, dislikes, preferred communication medium, and behavioural patterns.

2. Support pupils to make informed choices by:

A. Helping them become accustomed to making choices. Pupils in both schools are encouraged to choose their own lunch dishes, the games they play and the way they record their work, among other things. They even get consulted during the hiring of new teaching staff. As a result, the process of making a decision becomes familiar to them.

B. Turning abstract into concrete. School staff proactively give concrete representations of abstract concepts to support the pupils’ decision making. For instance, they visit colleges and/or employment institutions to experience what it’s like to be there.

C. Jointly evaluating the choices. Students evaluate the choices that they have by talking with school staff and/or by writing the pros and cons of each choice. It is important to note that the school staff also allow the pupils to make mistakes (within reason), as opposed to forcing them to choose what the staff thinks is the best or safest choice. This further develops the pupils’ critical thinking skills. 

3. Elicit the pupils' views. 

The last phase in the process is to elicit the views of the young people through their preferred communication medium.

Implementing the process in your school

First and foremost, it is important to note that it was a small-scale study conducted in only two schools. As such, the context of your school should be taken into consideration when implementing the process above, as it is different from those of the participating schools. Perhaps the first step is to conduct an audit of your school’s transition planning process to see if it includes some, all, or none of the phases mentioned above. Doing so can provide a plan for change in the future.

It may also be ideal to enlist the support of your school’s educational psychologist (EP) as it is likely that they would have a holistic and objective knowledge of the context of your school and local authority. This, in addition to their positive working relationships with the staff and families, as well as their research background, makes them a ‘critical friend’ to support you throughout the development of your school’s transition planning process.

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