Transition to tertiary education

Students with an ASD who are diagnosed before starting tertiary education have typically had a lot of support from family and teachers in high school. These students will be accustomed to a high level of support and may experience difficulties without similar support in the tertiary education environment. Other students may enter tertiary education without a formal diagnosis, and life may break down in the less structured tertiary setting, leading to an eventual diagnosis.

When students transition into university or TAFE, where there are not as many support structures, the transition period can be extremely challenging.

TAFE and university

TAFE and university are adult learning environments, although student ages can range from fifteen to eighty. Students are expected to be independent learners and complete a lot more work, often in shorter time periods, than at secondary school. There are different methods of delivering course content, including classrooms, lectures, online, flexible delivery, off campus, and hands-on training.

Studying at university and TAFE can be particularly challenging for ASD students due to the characteristics of these environments, which are quite different from secondary schools, i.e.: 

  • attendance at lectures is not compulsory
  • self-directed studying is expected
  • lectures often have hundreds of students
  • different teaching methods are used
  • no hand-holding for students is provided
  • there are no 9 am to 3 pm daily routines
  • there is less interaction with teaching staff
  • there are few practice-runs
  • there is an expectation of independent learning.

Transition support

Rather than make assumptions about the impact of students' diagnoses on their learning, educators and disability support liaison officers need to ask ASD students what assistance or accommodations they need.

A good place to begin is to collect up-to-date information on the individual as a whole. Getting to know the individual with an ASD who is beginning the post-secondary transition process is the foundation for developing a successful transition plan. This includes understanding their background, the skills they already have and the skills they need to acquire.

Tailoring the transition support

Students at the same institution and with similar diagnoses may have very different needs, depending on the following factors:

  1. type or extent of impairment
  2. previous education experience
  3. skills and strategies that they have learned
  4. course nature and requirements
  5. teaching format and learning environment
  6. level and field of study.

More importantly, as with any disability, it is the implications of the condition, and the social context of the disability, that are important, rather than the ‘diagnosis’ in itself.

The essential components of effective transition planning include:

  • student involvement in their own transition planning
  • parent and family involvement in transition planning
  • a good fit between student and choice of university/TAFE and courses
  • a meaningful curriculum
  • student-orientated and outcome-based goals.