Transition from secondary school can be one of the most life-changing events a young person and their family face and the process is often difficult and confusing. Decisions made as we prepare to leave school can impact on the rest of our lives. This information is for Northern Ireland. Find information for England, Scotland and Wales.

It’s important that autistic pupils, their families and others in their circle of support are involved in planning early. This is to ensure that they are engaged and supported appropriately so that decisions are informed.

School leaving age

The date a young person can leave school depends upon when they reach their 16th birthday. For example, if they turn 16 during the school year they can leave on 30 June of that school year. 

If their 16th birthday falls between 2 July and 31 August of any year, they can leave on 30 June of the following year.

However, if they have a statement of special educational needs they can remain in education until the end of the school year after their 19th birthday.

Involving everyone in the young person’s circle of support

A successful transition plan should involve everyone in a young person’s circle of support. Planning should be person centred, focusing on what they want for their future and what matters to them. 

Transitions are a journey where we look at the options we have ahead of us. These can include:
  • going to college 
  • applying to university 
  • applying for day opportunities
  • looking for a job or apprenticeship
  • volunteering opportunities
  • moving to our own home or residential accommodation.

The young person may already have an ideal career path in mind, or a dream to live in a particular place. Their ideas should be taken seriously so that specific goals that are positive and possible can be identified. For example:

I want to be an actor.

Goal 1: Study the work of someone you admire.
Goal 2: Join a local drama or theatre group.
Goal 3: Look into performance arts courses at colleges and theatre schools.

I want to work with animals.

Goal 1: Read books or watch TV programmes on animal behaviour and care.
Goal 2: Volunteer at a local animal shelter.
Goal 3: Find out about animal care college courses.

Engaging and supporting the young person

How a young person communicates should not be a barrier to them contributing to their transition. Any planning should allow for them to contribute in the way that is most meaningful to them.

If it is felt they do not have the capacity to make their own choices, families and professionals should look at creative ways to advocate their preference. This may include using visual supports, assessing and recording their reaction as evidence. 

Thought should be given to how your child can be supported to reduce anxiety throughout the process. 

Early decision making and support strategies can help. This may include:

  • new support staff working with them prior to the move
  • visiting the new environment to meet staff and peers
  • using social stories or visual supports. 

Young people with statements of special educational needs (SEN)

If a young person has a statement of SEN then the first annual review after their 14th birthday and subsequent reviews will focus on their needs as they move into further education, training or employment once they are 16. It should involve professionals from agencies who will be crucial during post school years.

Representatives from your local health and social services authority and the Careers Service must also be invited to the review meeting. 

The Careers Service will ensure that all further education and training opportunities are considered. They can help identify any specific targets to ensure that independence training, personal skills, social interaction and other aspects of the wider curriculum are fully supported.

A review report and transition plan will be prepared, this should collate information from a range of professionals in the young person’s circle of support.

What should be included in a transition plan

A plan should consider the following, with input from professionals and agencies.

School and professionals

  • What are the young person’s curriculum needs during transition?  This should include how they can be helped to develop the skills they need to become more independent and have full access to the local community. 
  • What special health, welfare or specific development needs do they have? This could be something like developing independence around travel or managing money.
  • Is the post 16 education provision appropriate enough to be considered? 
  • Are there other agencies that need to be involved to ensure an effective transition? 
  • How can information be best transferred from children’s to adult services?

The young person and their family

It’s important to make sure that the young person is engaged in the decision making process. 
  • What are their aspirations for the future and how can they be met? 
  • What information will they need to make informed choices?
  • What local advice and advocacy services are available?
  • How can they be encouraged to contribute to the transition plan and make positive decisions about their future? 

Parents should also think about what expectations they have for their child’s adult life and how they can contribute to help them develop personal and social skills. They should also consider any new caring needs they may have and support required. 

The answers to these questions should form the basis of the young person’s Transition Plan. It should focus on their strengths, areas of need and cover all aspects of their development. Clear responsibility for different aspects of their development should be allocated to specific agencies and professionals. 

Inter-agency support

Professionals from the following services should be actively involved in developing the young person’s plan: 
  • local health and social services
  • careers service
The education authority (EA) must consult with the HSS Trust to establish whether a young person is disabled and what support they may require from the Trust when they leave school.

Young people without a statement of SEN

There is no requirement for a transition plan to be prepared for young people who don’t have a statement. However, the special educational needs code of practice  states that the EA and the young person’s school may wish to prepare a transition plan and offer guidance to pupils with SEN who are likely to need support when they move to further education or training. 

This could be school or college link courses or work placements.

Choosing a college or university

It’s important for a young person wanting to go to college or university to think through the implications of this. Adults involved in helping them plan for transition should make sure that they consider university course choices and accommodation decisions carefully. 

Useful information about universities can be found on their website. You can also search the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) or Which? University.

Read more about starting college or university


In the Careers Service, Disablement Employment Advisors (DEAs) can offer careers advice and help with finding suitable employment or training. 

They can also advise employers about adapting the workplace or supporting disabled people at work. 

Read employment guidance for autistic adults.  

Benefits and community care

Autistic students and their families may be entitled to financial support in the form of social security benefits and social care support.

Read more about benefits and care.   

The amount of support will depend of personal circumstances.  For example, a young autistic adult may be able to care for themselves independently or it is possible that you and or others will continue to care for them. 

Find further information about support options

Further help from our charity

The National Autistic Society Northern Ireland offers a wide range of quality, personalised support services for people on the autism spectrum and their families and carers. You could also try searching our Autism Services Directory for other services

Our Education Rights Service provides information, support and advice on educational provision and entitlements for children and young people on the autism spectrum.

Useful reading

Code of practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs. Department of Education (1998).
Supplement to the code of practice. Department of Education (2005).
Special Educational Needs: A guide for Parents Department of Education (1997).


Department of Education
Tel: 028 9127 9279

Last reviewed: 11 August 2016.