As parents, we watch our children go through many transitions. In the early years it’s starting to talk, or going from crawling to walking. As our kids get older, there’s the independence that rears its head in surprising ways like talking back. But parents with special needs kids have unique challenges when it comes to transitions.

My son recently transitioned from middle school to high school. This is a huge transition for any child, but can feel even more monumental when having a child with autism, as we do. My husband and I began thinking about our son, Hayden’s, transition when he was in 7th grade. Middle school is a blip – 3 years goes by so quickly. As soon as you get comfortable or at least as soon as you know the school, you begin thinking about the next step. It happens so fast.

Here are some steps that we took to try and ensure a smooth transition to high school.

  1. Talk to other parents who have transitioned – This was very helpful. We talked to a handful of parents and asked them about what schools they looked at, what they liked and didn’t like about the schools and what they were looking for. Every child on the autism spectrum is different and it was helpful to learn from other parents what mattered to them and why.
  2. Find out what options you have within your school district – We started looking at the school for Hayden in 7th grade and it seemed that as we get further and further along in the school system, the fewer and fewer options we have. It was surprising. The schools we saw in 7th grade, we made sure to go back and see in 8th Schools change – administrators come and go, as do teachers. It’s important to get the feel of the school and see if that fits for your family.
  3. Discuss where you see your child as an adult – Thinking about what our kids will be like or doing as adults is scary and hard. We fear adulthood for them; it’s such an unknown. But this is the time to talk about it. My husband and I had some very direct conversations about what each of us thought we wanted for Hayden as an adult. Does he need a diploma? Did we see him working? If we did what kind of work? We had to start imagining what his life was going to be like. You need that picture in your mind because you want high school to help you get there. There needs to be a purpose to high school and not just going to school. This was the most critical part of our process. Thinking about the transition into high school was more about what we wanted for Hayden’s life. These discussions with your spouse or partner are not easy to have. You have to have a lot of patience and even if your visions don’t match up initially, remember to listen with an open mind.
  4. Think about the length of high school – That may seem a bit strange to say because we typically think of high school as 4 years. But it doesn’t have to be. Our kids can stay in the school system until 21. As we thought of high school for Hayden, we knew at least for his 9th grade year we wanted him to have a lighter work load. It’s a big transition and he doesn’t love school so instead of taking 8 courses which is a lot, we decided that he would take 5 core courses plus a study skills class. He loves his schedule. It’s much easier for him to manage and he can get all his work done during the day so that he doesn’t have homework. If this makes his high school experience 5 years, that’s fine with us. Most parents of young adults that we’ve spoken with all have the same advice. Stay in the school system until 21. We are following that advice. Hayden may not be in high school until he’s 21 but we are going to make sure that he gets everything he can out of school that will help set him up for his adult future.
  5. Assess your child’s strengths and needs and think outside the box for high school programming – Thinking about where to send Hayden to high school was very overwhelming to us. So we stopped thinking about it as high school and started thinking about it as a platform to help transition Hayden into his real next transition which was adulthood. Thinking about it that way, really helped us determine what we wanted Hayden to learn and have exposure to in high school. School has never been easy for Hayden – learning the all the content, dealing with all the people, and having so many demands being placed on him constantly. It’s just really hard. So we thought about all of this as we planned his course load and types of classes. Most high schools have a combination of self contained and inclusion classes so we used this to our advantage when choosing his courses. Hayden is fully included for Art and Math. He really enjoys art and his favorite subject is math because it comes easily to him. We knew those would be larger classes but also thought those were the best classes for him to be able to interact with his peers. For English, we choose a self contained class because comprehension is much harder for Hayden and having a smaller class that has a special educator would make that easier for him. We went a totally new direction for his History and Science classes. He is taking those online. Our school system has an office for e-learning and we believed that that mode of learning would appeal to Hayden. He’s great with a computer and can work more at his pace. We also thought that if he enjoyed that learning style then the options for college could open up to him. We didn’t know that was an option but we asked. Don’t be afraid to ask for something. The worst thing that can happen is that someone says no. But if they say yes, the world opens up a little bit more for our kids. It’s totally worth it.

Hayden started high school in August and he was so excited. He really has been enjoying high school. He likes that his classes are more tailored to his learning style. He likes taking the online classes which he does in his school so he still has opportunities for social interactions. He’s much more relaxed with decreased anxiety and this has opened up his ability to engage with his classmates.

If you ask Hayden about his transition he says, “High school is way better than middle school. It’s so much better!”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

By Helen Shafer, President and Founder

For more information on The Shafer Center please call 410-517-1113