Transition Time

This came about when I was thinking about two very different triathlon experiences, and subsequently reflecting on pupils with autism at school. Anyone who has experienced an open water mass swim start to a race will know how scary it can be – lots of physical contact, arms and legs thrashing all over, goggles in danger of being knocked off, faster swimmers swimming over you – all in all, it can be pretty intimidating. However, I took part in an event recently where every single competitor had their own swim start, each 30 seconds apart. It was an incredible experience, so very different to a mass start – almost surreal, in fact, so different it was to what I was used to. I am not suggesting that one is better that the other (I quite like the adrenaline prompting mass start myself and found the individual start a bit lonely!) – just contextualising my thoughts, as it made me think of transition time in schools. Not only did the mass start prompt me to think of school, but the word ‘transition’ is very much associated with triathlons, so one thought led to the next…

Pretty much everyone associated with autism in whatever capacity will recognise that the word ‘transition’ is related to autism in a very negative way. Transition, it seems, is not an autism friendly concept. So – what is being done about it? There are all sorts of references to transition in various policies and guidance – but in this brief Blog I want to highlight a very specific area of transition with three suggestions that just might benefit pupils in school. They are suggestions only, not evidence based research – so, you make up your own minds as to their potential worth.

The transition I am referring to is that between lessons. Very often, the scenario is one of apparent chaos to an outsider – but for the pupil with autism it is potentially an horrendous experience, which must be lived through several times every school day. The sensory overload alone might be enough for the autistic student to feel terrified of these transitionary times, let alone the myriad of occurrences that may or may not happen that simply cannot be prepared for. Now, schools simply don’t have the time to follow triathlon scenario two from the first paragraph – but I wonder if simply dividing each class into three groups (or, in triathlon terms, waves) and asking each one to leave with a minute gap between might go a huge way to alleviate some of the problems autistic students face during busy corridor times? It would be possible to ensure that the students who most benefit from quieter transitions to go in the first group, which again could be of huge beneficial impact to some students. And, really, would it waste much time? I suspect in the end it would either make no difference or – if disruption between lessons reduces, it may even save time. So, that is suggestion number one.

Suggestion number two – think about the school bell signifying the end of a lesson. Some schools I know of have abolished the school bell entirely, such was the negative impact it was having on their students on the spectrum. I have heard of some schools who have special lights that are used to indicate imminent transition times and how students report positively of the system, and others where classroom lights are dimmed briefly to show that the end of a lesson is due. Of course these suggestions may not be possible, particularly if there are students with visual issues who require auditory signals – but there are alternatives to school bells which are autism friendly, and can make a very significant impact on those students with auditory hypersensitivity. One of my favourites that I have come across is a visual ‘countdown’ traffic light system, where the green light (lesson in progress) changes to amber to signify five minutes to go, then red for the end of lesson. Very autism friendly indeed!

My third suggestion relates to seating. Some students love routine and consistency, and having the same seat in each classroom may be hugely anxiety-alleviating for them. Knowing who is sat next to them, knowing what to expect, and what the view will be are all aspects that may be useful to the student on the spectrum. Some students may also prefer a seat in a specific area of the classroom – next to the window for natural light for example, or right at the front so they can concentrate on the teacher and have a less ‘busy’ view of the classroom, or right at the back so they don’t feel as though everyone else is looking at them.Each student will have his or her own preference, and if this stems from a specific autism-related need which is subsequently me it may again go some way towards reducing stress.

So, three suggestions to reduce anxiety for autistic pupils, all relating to transition from one class to the next. While they may seem minor or trivial – to some students they may be hugely impactful.

Please add comments to share your success stories with others; until next time, thank you as always for reading, and feel free to share with anyone who you feel might benefit!