Young Aspergers (high functioning autistic) teens entering high school look forward to having more choices and making new and more friends; however, they also are concerned about being picked on and teased by older students, having harder work, making lower grades, and getting lost in a larger, unfamiliar school.
As Aspergers teens make the transition into high school, many experience a decline in grades and attendance. They view themselves more negatively and experience an increased need for friendships. By the end of the 10th grade as many as 6% drop out of school. For middle school students, including those who have been labeled "gifted" or "high-achieving," the transition into high school can be an especially unpleasant experience.
Research has found, however, that when middle school students with Aspergers took part in a high school transition program with several diverse articulation activities, fewer students were retained in the transition grade. Furthermore, middle school principals indicated that they expected fewer of their students to drop out before graduation when the school provided supportive advisory group activities or responsive remediation programs.
Providing Aspergers students with activities that relate directly to their transition into high school certainly is important; however, providing these young people with a challenging and supportive middle school experience is an equally important factor in their making a successful transition into high school. Research reveals that Aspergers students who stayed together with the same educators through sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and experienced more hands-on, life-related learning activities, integrated instruction, and cooperative learning groups were more successful in their transition to high school than were students from the same school who had a more traditional middle school experience.
Aspergers students have also indicated that if their middle school educators had held them more responsible for their learning, taught them more about strategies for learning on their own, and provided them a more challenging curriculum, their transition to high school would have been easier.
A good high school transition program includes a variety of activities that (1) provide children and parents with information about the new school, (2) provide children with social support during the transition, and (3) bring middle school and high school personnel together to learn about one another's curriculum and requirements.
Middle school students with Aspergers want to know what high school is going to be like, and they and their parents need to know about and understand high school programs and procedures well in advance. In particular, parents need to be actively involved in the decisions their eighth-graders are asked to make about classes they will take in ninth grade and understand the long-term effects of the course decisions.
Some of the ways Aspergers students can learn about high school include:
- "shadowing" a current high school student
- attending a fall orientation assembly (preferably before school starts)
- attending a presentation by a high school student or panel of students
- discussing high school regulations and procedures with eighth-grade educators and counselors
- participating in face-to-face activities
- visiting the high school in the fall for schedule information
- visiting the high school in the spring
In addition, high school students might, either as a class or club project, set up a Web page that would provide incoming students information on different high school activities and clubs and offer them an opportunity to get answers to any questions they may have from the "experts."
At a time when friendships and social interaction are particularly important for young Aspergers teens, the normative transition into high school often serves to disrupt friendship networks and, thereby, interferes with students' success in high school. Thus, it is vital for a transition program to include activities that will provide incoming students social support activities that give students the opportunity to get to know and develop positive relationships with older students and other incoming students.
Methods of social support include:
- "Big Sister/Brother" Program that begins in eighth grade and continues through ninth grade
- Peer mentoring programs
- Spring social event for current and incoming high school students
- Tutoring programs
- Writing programs where eighth-graders correspond with high school students
The importance of parents being involved in their Aspergers child’s transition from middle to high school can hardly be overestimated. When parents are involved in their child’s transition to high school, they tend to stay involved in his/her school experiences. Also, when parents are involved in their child's high school experiences, the student (statistically speaking) has a higher level of achievement, is better adjusted, and is less likely to drop out of school.
Parent involvement in the transition process to high school can be encouraged through a variety of activities. Parents may:
- be invited to participate in a conference (preferably at the middle school) with their child and the high school counselor to discuss course work and schedules
- help design and facilitate some of the articulation activities for students
- spend a day at the high school to help them understand what their child's life will be like
- visit the high school with their child in the spring or in the fall
Note: Parents of students who are already in high school are an excellent resource for other parents and may also help to encourage new parents to be more involved in school activities.
How Parents Can Help With Transitions—
1. A week or so before school starts in the fall, make sure your adolescent gets another tour of the school. Help him find his locker and practice opening it. Take his schedule and walk from class to class in the order he will have to go each day. If the schedule is not the same every day, make sure you practice with him/her all the different variations. Visit the cafeteria and talk about the different options for eating lunch, bring lunch from home or buying hot lunch.
2. Arrange for your adolescent to meet all of his educators before the first day of school. This is something that would best be done over several days so your adolescent is not overwhelmed.
3. Get a catalogue of courses offered as soon as it is available and start looking at it with your adolescent. Talk about classes that will be required to graduate and classes that your adolescent has a special interest in.
4. If possible, plan for your 8th grader to spend time at the high school during his 8th grade year. If the schools are close together it might be possible for your 8th grader to spend his study hall time working in the library at the high school, working as a teacher's assistant, or being an office helper. Or perhaps your Aspergers adolescent can take a class at the high school during his 8th grade year.
5. If the high school has a mentor program for incoming freshmen try and have your adolescent meet his mentor over the summer, for ice cream or a soda, to get to know each other a little.
6. If your adolescent has an IEP (individual education plan) make sure all of his/her educators are aware of the IEP and take time to briefly discuss with each of them the most critical issues for your adolescent.
7. If your adolescent will ride the school bus, visit the bus stop by your home and locate the drop off spot at the high school. Figure out which door they will use to enter the school and how to find their locker from that door. Make sure your adolescent knows where they will catch the bus in the afternoon and how to identify which bus they will ride on. If this is your adolescent's first experience with a school bus, make sure the bus driver is aware of your adolescent's special needs and that they will keep a careful eye on your adolescent to make sure they get off at the correct spot.
8. In the spring make sure your adolescent gets a tour of the high school, meeting key people like the principal, counselors, special education staff, front office staff, and library staff.
9. Make arrangements with the high school for your adolescent to sit in on a few classes towards the end of his 8th grade year. If possible arrange for your adolescent to visit classes of educators he/she will have the following year. Also, arrange for someone to sit in on the classes with your adolescent, a counselor, special ed teacher, etc.
10. Make arrangements with the school for your adolescent to have one special person who will be their "go to" person if they have any questions or difficulties.
11. Start planning early for the change. The beginning of 8th grade is not too soon to start having conversation with school personnel about ways to make it easier for the next year.
12. Start talking about college and what your adolescent will have to do to get ready.
13. Start talking about how great high school will be and how you think you adolescent will really enjoy being there. (You are planting positive ideas, so try and sound very positive).
14. Have the school assign a compassionate student to be your adolescent's lunch buddy for the first week of school so he/she does not have to eat alone. Sometimes schools are willing to assign a buddy for each class too. This can be helpful in making your Aspergers adolescent feel more accepted by his/her peers.
15. Plan to touch base with each of your adolescents educators by email after the first 1-2 days of school to see how things are progressing. Arrange to have an in person meeting with the educators during the second week of school. (By that time they have had a chance to figure out who your youngster is and you can give them more information about Aspergers and what has worked best for your youngster in the past. Be sure to thank them for their willingness to help your unique youngster have a great year and offer to help them in any way you can.)