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

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

School leaving age

The date a young person can leave school depends on when they reach their 16th birthday. For example:

  • if they are 16 between 1 March and 30 September, they can leave on 31 May of that year 
  • if their birthday falls between 1 October and 29 February, they can leave on the first day of the school Christmas holidays. 

A young person can stay in school until they are 18 years of age. In practice, this may be extended, particularly in special schools. This would be at the discretion of the local authority.

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 the young person wants for their future and what matters to them.

The Scottish Transitions Forum also has helpful resources to ensure that young people are involved and informed in their transition planning.

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 opportunties
  • 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 that they don’t 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.

Transition planning

The local authority (LA) must start to gather information that will help prepare an autistic student at least 12 months before they are due to leave school. 

They can make contact with the service or department that will be supporting the young person once they have completed their transition. This could be: 
  • A college, university or careers service for those intending to either continue their education or look for a job. 
  • A social worker or housing department for those that may have greater care needs.  
This means the LA can review the support a young person has been receiving, which can help to inform any decisions about their future support needs.   

The views of parents and the young person must be considered.  

At least six months before they are due to leave school, the LA must pass this information on so that it’s helpful to the service(s) that will be supporting the young person once they have left school. This shouldn’t be done without a parent’s permission.
The LA are also responsible for telling a future service(s) when the young person has left school.

What type of help with transition can a young person expect? 

Help given to a young person will depend on their individual needs and circumstances. The transition planning should be person centred and involve those in their circle of support, including parents/carers. 

Strategies that can help include:

  • a visit to their chosen college, university, service or workplace
  • meeting support staff that are new to them before the transition takes place 
  • arranging a phased entry 
  • social stories to help familiarise them with their new environment
  • individual or group work on preparing for the transition 
  • mutual sharing information about the young person’s needs, capabilities and difficulties 
  • strong communication between the young person, their parents and any support services, particularly around their strengths and what they enjoy doing
  • a key worker or transition co-ordinator 
  • curriculum activities that will help, such as independent living skills or social skills. 
It can also be beneficial for the young person to have a transition plan or to include targets and support strategies from an existing education plan, such as a co-ordinated support plan (CSP).

What do if help is not available? 

If the young person is not getting the help they need with transition then contact the school or local authority.  If they can’t address this then you may be able to appeal to the Additional Support Needs Tribunals for Scotland

Our Education Rights Service can help parents to prepare their appeal and offers advice and information on tribunals and other processes for resolving disagreements.

Choosing further or higher education

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 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.

Lead Scotland, is a voluntary organisation set up to widen access to learning for disabled young people, adults and carers across Scotland. 

Read more about starting college or university

Finding Employment

Skills Development Scotland provides services, information and support on career planning to people. 

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 Scotland 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

Supporting children's learning: code of practice. Scottish Government (2010). 

Autism toolbox. Scottish Government.

Last reviewed: 15 July 2016.