Children in Ireland experience a range of educational transitions in their young lives. During transitions, children make the daily ‘border crossing’ from the familiar to the unfamiliar (Vogler, Crivello and Woodhead, 2008, p. 28). With regard to children with special educational needs, transitions have been recognised internationally as a key principle in the field of Early Intervention (Workgroup on Principles and Practices in Natural Environments, 2007). While many children experience difficulties in their early educational transitions, children with ASD experience significant challenges and require a range of interventions to address these challenges

This paper draws on a longitudinal research project that involved carrying out in-depth qualitative case studies of young children with ASD transitioning to early education settings. Findings include the importance of nuanced approaches to transitions for children with ASD, the need to involve parents and the recognition that all children, including children who are nonverbal are agentic and have a voice.

Drawing from a review of the relevant literature, this article is structured around a discussion of the following central themes: the challenges experienced by children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) relating to transitions, the need for family involvement and children’s agency.

Significant developments in early intervention and primary school education provision for children with ASD in the Republic of Ireland has taken place (McCoy, Banks, Frawley, Watson, Shevlin and Smyth, 2014). Policy and legislation reinforce the inclusion of children with special educational needs (SEN) including children with ASD (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2014) in mainstream educational settings. Yet in their review of evidenced based practice relating to autism, Parsons, Guldberg, MacLeod, Jones, Prunty, and Balfe, (2009) identified transitions as a source of extreme stress and vulnerability for the individual with autism and their family. 

More recently, Daly and colleagues (NCSE, 2016) noted more positive outcomes in relation to transitions between early intervention settings and mainstream primary schools. The effects of transitions in a variety of early years educational settings however require more research. This research attempts to address this gap and investigates the journeys of young children with ASD as they navigate different early years settings.

Transitions in the lives of children with ASD

Transitions are universally defined as a passage, movement or development, from one state or place of being to another (Meleis, 2010). Research has drawn upon the metaphor of a river (Peters and Paki, 2014) which has definition and direction but may also experience disruptions. For the child with autism, momentary changes defined as horizontal transitions are as challenging and important as changes in children’s life trajectories (vertical transitions).

The difficulties faced by children with Autism Spectrum Disorders may present complex instructional challenges for teachers (Scheuermann, Webber, Boutot, and Goodwin, 2003). These children display significant heterogeneity, but share core impairments in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interaction and understanding, and repetitive or restricted patterns of behaviours, interests or activities (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Sensory integration difficulties (Miller, Anzalone, Lane, Cermak and Osten, 2007) have also been recently acknowledged.

These impairments can influence various areas of development and learning (Rogers and Vismara, 2008). The complexity of the multifaceted nature of ASD highlights the need to adopt evidence-based practices (National Research Council, 2001). In addition, due to the heterogeneity of ASD, effective educators should possess the professional skills to work with other professionals, therapists, and parents to develop individualised programmes that include plans to teach and generalise skills beyond initial educational circumstances (Ingersoll and Dvortcsak, 2006). Children with ASD may experience significant difficulty with change and interruptions in routine (Mesibov et al., 2005). They may experience transitions as potential disruptions conflicting with some children’s unyielding need for sameness and difficulty generalising experiences in time and place. Sterling-Turner and Jordan (2007) emphasise that children with ASD require a range of interventions to address their transition challenges.

Children as Agents

Emphasising the voice of the child, this research sought to draw on Lam and Pollard’s (2006) work which explored children’s reactions to new settings. The authors observed that children are active, creative agents, capable of recreating and reconstructing the classroom according to their own needs. Based on this, this article suggests that children themselves should be involved in the transition process.

Methodology

In-depth, qualitative case studies including children with ASD, their parents and educators sought to explore experiences of transition. This research comprised 20 one-to-one semi- structured interviews with parents during a period of fifteen months. In particular, this research also sought to access the voice of the young child with autism using creative methods. A portfolio of alternative communication methods which will be described in the next section, was developed and used. Children were provided with change and stop cards so that they could withdraw from the research if they experienced any discomfort (Twomey and Shevlin, under review). For the purposes of this article, the experiences of Callum and Charlie and their parents will be documented in the Findings.

Creative approaches in this research included a portfolio of methods which were sensitively developed to facilitate children with autism and address their communicative needs. This included a combination of methods including the use of ‘objects of reference, a multi-sensory approach using real object or photos and pictures of real objects that have meaning for the child. Visual schedules, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and Irish sign language (LAMH) were also used. Rapport was enhanced with children through the introduction of puppetry and their performance of role play, which has been utilised in previous research (Dwight-Salmon, 2005). This research further developed these methods by establishing the puppets as co-researchers and conducting classroom interventions exploring topics such as friendship, play and inclusion (Twomey and Shevlin, under review). Methods and approaches attempted to invite children to contribute as active participants and researchers (Jones and Gillies, 2010; Kellett, 2006) giving them opportunities to use the puppets.

Findings

The data presented below illustrate some of the emergent themes including issues that emerged around children’s transitions. The excerpts presented draw on parents’ perceptions and understandings of transition as well as the responses of Callum and Charlie.

Support and Planning

This case study describes Charlie’s experiences transitioning to a mainstream educational setting. Charlie’s delay receiving a diagnosis meant that he had already started attending a mainstream preschool without adequate support and planning. Following a difficult transition,

Charlie was withdrawn from this preschool and started attending an Early Intervention Unit. Charlie’s mum Sue highlighted the lack of preparation before transitioning to her local preschool: 

“He would lie kicking and screaming - all the other children lined up beautifully. It was then we saw how difficult things were for him” (P2, EI 2) (Twomey and Shevlin, in press).

In contrast, daily, horizontal transitions were excellent at the Early Intervention Unit. Transitions were supported through the use of visual schedules, photographs, and objects of reference.

Parental Vulnerability

The following section provides excerpts from case studies involving Kate’s experiences when Callum transitioned to his local mainstream primary school. At the time of transition parental vulnerability was apparent. Kate explained that Callum had recently been assessed with an additional neurological condition. This did not hamper his day-to-day interactions. However, the effect of this additional diagnosis increased Kate's vulnerability and Kate feared that Callum would fail to access his local mainstream school. 

"I asked the paediatrician, will he ever attend mainstream school?" (P1, MS 2).

When Callum transitioned, he received support from the school-based, multi-disciplinary team. Teachers benefitted significantly from this collaboration. This included avoidance of distractions, a clear and unambiguous environment, as well as structured and informed practice. Evidence of success was apparent when daily horizontal transitions were adapted. These included accommodations such as delayed entry to the classroom adn the incorporation of sensory interventions. Callum spent increasing amounts of time in his new environment and began to interact with peers. 

Creative Methods

This research benefitted from creating innovative participatory research methods that engaged children’s interest. Children with autism were supported with objects of reference, visual schedules, PECS and Irish sign language. As the research progressed, large child size puppets were introduced. The children named the puppets: Pretty Girl and Pretty Boy. The puppets performed role play and invited the children to

Discussion

The final section of this article will interpret the findings in light of the extant literature. While this research has taken the form of small-scale qualitative case studies, it also yielded valuable information relating to parents’ perspectives of transitions and the development of creative methods designed to engage children and access their voice.

Beginnings, Endings and Beginnings

In agreement with the literature, family- centredness was crucial. Parent involvement was essential to the success of transitions. Parents in the case studies in this research needed to be acknowledged as the constant in their children’s lives and therefore required training and inclusion in focused collaborations.

Similar to Sterling-Turner and Jordan (2007), the children with autism in this study required a range of interventions to address challenges associated with transitions, particularly if they are to experience change. Without an extensive repertoire of spoken language, Callum and Charlie found it difficult to make their needs known, however with use of evidence based practice in social communication methods (Ingersoll and Dvortcsak, 2006; National Research Council, 2001), Callum and Charlie began to communicate more effectively with the researcher and peers, identifying a possible opportunity for accessing children’s voice.Similar to Trimingham (2010) the use of puppets as reported by children, parents and teachers in this case study facilitated communication. The researcher observed that frequent visits by a familiar person enhanced adaptability, and provided children with ASD with predictability, safety and an ability to connect.

Conclusion

This research extended the metaphor of a river (Peters and Paki, 2014) and introduced puppetry as a bridge connecting the old with the new; enhancing continuity. Puppets did not have a finite existence, they acted as intermediaries; showing potential to connect children’s experiences from the past with the future, through play. Puppets have potential to extend the social and learning journeys of all children, representing children’s experiences over time. This empirical research adds to the nuanced development of transitions in the literature. Puppets can encourage children to tell us what is happening, and how they feel about it.

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Author information

Miriam Twomey is an Assistant Professor in Early Intervention at the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin and leads the new Masters in Early Intervention. Miriam has a Doctorate in Early Intervention, Special Education and Inclusion. Her Master’s degree focused on play and the encouragement of social interaction in young children including children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Miriam’s research interests include Autism Spectrum Disorders, the role of movement in development, intersubjectivity and engagement, and Continuing Professional Development for early years educators, parents, teachers and other professionals.