Preparing Your Aspergers Child for Transition to Middle-School

Parents who have children that will attend middle-school for the first time in the fall of this year need to initiate preparations pronto!

Another school year is quickly drawing to a close, and for some students, this is their last year of elementary school. This is not necessarily good news for children with Aspergers and High Functioning Autism (HFA). Why?

First, THE most difficult transition for most students (Aspergers or not) is that of going on to middle-school. This is largely due to the fact that, for the first time in the student’s life, he/she will have several teachers AND a much larger school population to contend with. Gone are the days where the child enjoyed having only one familiar teacher and only one relatively small classroom.

Second, children with Aspergers and HFA have difficulty with transitions in general – especially one this dramatic.

In general, a child’s intrinsic motivation toward school (i.e., the desire to do schoolwork for its own sake rather than for an external reward) has been found to decrease with age. Intrinsic motivation especially drops during transitions between schools (e.g., from elementary school to middle-school). In other words, children may get a great deal of pleasure from doing science projects in the 5th grade but feel like they are doing a project "just to do it" in the 7th or 8th grade.

After entering middle-school, children tend to get lower grades than they did in elementary school. This drop does not seem to occur because of any cognitive or intellectual changes. In fact, children perform just as well on standardized tests after entering middle-school as they did before. It also does not seem that grading becomes more difficult after the transition to middle-school. Therefore, a child’s lower grades seem to reflect an actual change in how he is performing during middle-school as compared to elementary school; he appears to place academics at a lower importance than he did earlier in his life.

Also, children perceive themselves to be less academically competent in middle-school than they did in elementary school. Over the course of just one year, many "Aspies" begin to lose belief in their own academic abilities, and a sense of low self-esteem kicks-in. This finding is important because children who think that they can do well in school are more likely to actually perform well. Oddly enough, the strongest children seem to experience the biggest drop in belief about their abilities over the middle-school transition.

Research has shown that Aspies are less interested in school, perform more poorly in their classes, and see themselves as less academically capable during middle-school than during elementary school. Figuring out why these negative changes occur is not easy and is the subject of ongoing research. There are probably many developmental reasons for the changes (e.g., shifting interests, the beginning of distracting bodily changes, bullying, sensory sensitivities, a larger building to navigate, more peers to try to relate to, being ostracized from "the peer-group" if you can't "fit-in" or be "cool," etc.). In addition, there seem to be increasing demands from educators and moms and dads for Aspies to get good grades rather than to simply enjoy the learning process. But exactly how much each factor affects children remains unclear.

Many of the factors that affect Aspergers and HFA children during the middle-school transition are beyond the parent’s control. Still, the parent can play a role in keeping the Aspie engaged in school. For one, parents can continue to emphasize the importance of "love of learning" during the middle-school years. Parents do this naturally during elementary school when grades are less prominent and important, thus they should keep up a similar attitude after the transition.

Second, parents can encourage their youngster to realistically assess her academic abilities. As mentioned earlier, strong children tend to stop believing in themselves most of all after the transition. Parents’ supportive words can help children remember that they are competent.

Lastly, simply keep these findings in mind. Recognize that the middle-school transition is difficult and that your Aspie may show signs of less school engagement after the transition. Try to be understanding of the challenging changes he/she is facing, and know that with some time and support, his/her passion for learning will hopefully reignite.

To help your Aspergers youngster adjust, begin discussing the types of changes he can expect long before that first day of class. Take your time and be there to answer any questions your youngster might have. 

Here are a few tips parents can take to prepare their youngster for the challenges and benefits of middle-school:

1. Many Aspies may worry about finding their classes, opening their lockers, or dressing for gym class. Address the youngster's fears one by one, and point out that everyone in her class is new to the school and the school rules. Also, point out that many of her fears will be addressed at an open house or school orientation. In the meantime, spend a little time showing your Aspie how to use a locker combination and offer tips on getting to her classes on time.

2. There are a number of books on the market that can prepare your youngster for the adjustments of middle-school. Some are very specific, written exclusively for Aspie boys or Aspie girls. It's not a bad idea to make an investment in one of these resources. They may even help you better understand some of the challenges your youngster will face, and that can help you help your Aspie. A good eBook on the market is Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management.

3. You may want to begin giving your Aspie a little independence once she starts middle-school. For many families, it's during the middle-school years when kids may be left home alone for the first time. This milestone should be approached carefully and with much consideration and preparation. Take time to transition your Aspie from constant supervision - to home alone, and check-up on her periodically to make sure she's using her time alone wisely.

4. Homework during the middle-school years tends to increase, and moms and dads can often find themselves unable to help with specific subjects. But they can still do quite a lot to help their kids tackle homework assignments and complete class projects (e.g., setting up an environment that helps your middle-schooler concentrate on homework in order to complete it quickly; keeping a family calendar in order to track special assignments and projects and keep your middle-schooler organized, etc.).

5. Many changes take place during the pre-teen years, and your youngster probably has questions or concerns about all of them. Discuss some of the changes your Aspie will likely encounter, and role-play how to deal with some of the more difficult challenges. For example, your Aspie will likely encounter new school-rules when she begins middle-school. What should she do if she breaks one of them accidentally? How should she respond?

6. Touring your youngster's new school is a wonderful way to answer any questions your Aspie might have about middle-school and ease any anxieties. A tour will show her where she can find all the places she'll have to go in the course of the day (e.g., gym, cafeteria, locker, etc.), and that will give her a sense of confidence on her first day.

7. Bullying tends to peak in the 7th and 8th grade and diminish slightly every year after. Unfortunately, most Aspies will encounter bullying at some point during middle-school. The best way to protect your youngster is to sit down and discuss behaviors common in middle-school (e.g., bullying, experimenting with tobacco, etc.). Aspies who are being bullied may try to hide the fact from family members or educators, so be sure you know the signs of bullying in order to take quick action.

8. The idea of moving up to middle-school can be scary for some kids. But it's important that children understand that middle-school offers many benefits and opportunities. Talk to your child about all the organizations and clubs she'll be able to join, as well as the independence that comes with being older and more mature. Point out all the opportunities your youngster's school offers, and encourage her to become involved right away, when everyone in her class is just as new to the school as she is.

Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management


  1. Yes,been there done that,now goin in to high school.we just met with an advocate to get our daughter the help she needs NOW and feel better about a new school year.

  2. Mark, thank you for your letter and your website. My son, Danny, is now 5.5 and we are getting him ready for kindergarten. We live in BIllings, MT where Danny has been receiving OT, PT, Speach via Eater Seals since he was 3 years old (just after diagnosis). We have also participated in the P.L.A.Y. Project with the local therapist. All of this hard work has leadus to believe that Danny should be able to go to a regular classroom, but of corse, we won't know for sure until we see it happen. If you have any information/publications/literature tha you think I should see, please, let me know. I was very impressed with your website. It made me realize how limited we are in MT in terms of Aspergers support and education.

  3. My 12 year old son was recently diagnosed with Aspergers. He starts Gr 7 next month and that has been a source of anxiety for me. In Gr 6 he got quite a few suspensions and many times I was called in to deal with his outbursts. He went an entire week refusing to do any school work and was ripping up his hand out sheets. He also has other learning disabilities that have me dreading each new school year

  4. My son will be 12 at the end of Sept, and is also starting the 7th grade. He was diagnosed this summer. I am dealing with some of the same issues, but in his case he seems to have regressed. He doesn't shower, brush his teeth or use deoderant unless someone is standing over him to make sure he does it. I have no idea what I am going to do this year considering I leave for work hours before he has to get up. HELP!!!

  5. hi there my son is 12 and is asperger too i found that setting and posting a large schedule broken down into steps helps him alot also putting reality into his heigene helps alot like he is interested in girls so i tell him girls dont like smelly armpits he forgets but as soon as i remind him to put pit stick on he goes right away and he wont take showers because he is afraid of the drain but he will take baths so and as far as teeth i find a good nighttime brush and rinse with mouthwash is just as good as in the morning also he likes to see his teeth get whiter good luck

  6. Hi,

    I'm 22 (23 in June), and have Asperger Syndrome. If your child has difficulty knowing when the rules do or don't need to be followed, make sure to explain this to his/her teachers in middle school/Jr. High. Especially if this has led your child to have conflicts with other people when s/he sees them do something s/he thinks is against the rules. This is especially important because when your child starts middle school/Jr. High, s/he might notice that some of his/her teachers are not as consistent with following or enforcing rules as most of his/her teachers in elementary school were.

    Some middle school students on the Autism Spectrum might still think that rules are the same in all situations, and may not realize yet that some rules may not apply in certain situations.

    Also make sure your middle schooler's teachers (and classmates if your child says it's OK) understand that even though your child's intellectual state may be above average for his/her age or grade level, he/she may (or may not) still have the social/emotional skills of an elementary school age child. If your child does not want his/her classmates to know about this, make sure all of his/her teachers know that s/he doesn't want the other classmates to know.