Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Alleviating the Stress of the Post-Secondary Transition

Families with a child on the autism spectrum face adversity and stress on a daily basis. Transitions in particular can be extremely stressful for families who have a child with an ASD. The transition from high school is stressful for families with neurotypical children and is even more so for the families on the spectrum. Not only is the fear of change stressful for students and their families, but the limited number of post secondary programs that serve this population exacerbates the problem. However, there are a number of things that can be done to reduce this particularly stressful transition.

First, plan ahead. Visualize the behaviors that would lead a young person to live an independent life. Many of the behaviors that one would visualize involve activities of daily living (ADLs). Starting at a young age, encourage your child to engage in self-grooming and care. Use behavior modification and positive reinforcement to solidify these skills. Time management is a major ADL skill that college students must learn. This skill must be broken down into using alarm clocks, smart phone reminders, and calendars.  As junior high and high school students, students on the spectrum ought to be responsible for waking themselves up and getting ready for school. Checklists or visual reminders can be used to assist the student in remembering the various steps.  Managing their bedroom space will help the student avoid conflicts with future roommates in the post secondary environment. Some students on the spectrum do not understand abstract terms like “neat” and will need prompting of what is meant by this term.  Creating a Power Point slide show with step by step written instructions coupled with photographs of what is expected can reduce the ambiguity and stress for the student on the spectrum. The slide show can be printed out and taped to the inside of a closet door. The management of laundry is a concrete skill that can be broken down into sorting laundry, washing, drying, folding and hanging laundry. A similar slide show can be created for the management of laundry. Recent research (Drahota, Wood, Sze, & Van Dyke, 2010) indicates that children on the spectrum who increase their adoption of activities of daily living (ADLs) and decrease their parental involvement in ADLs have lower levels of anxiety.

Second, give the student on the spectrum opportunities to exercise independence through summer camps and other types of sleep away programs. This intervention has a three-fold benefit.  (1)  It allows the student on the spectrum to practice the ADLs necessary to be successful in a post secondary environment. (2) Summer camps and college-based summer transitional programs offer the families respite from caring for their child on the spectrum thereby reducing stress and caregiver overload. And (3), college-based transitional programs help reduce stress for both the students and the parents by addressing the anticipatory anxiety surrounding what to do after high school.  The student and family will receive feedback on how the student will fare in a college like setting before committing to a 4-year college or some other post secondary program. Living in a residence hall is stressful for most college students and is even more so for students on the spectrum. Summer transitional programs can give the families feedback regarding the appropriateness of their son’s or daughter’s social skills in this group environment. It also prepares the student for the rhythms and schedules associated with being on a college campus. The experience can help the family make decisions surrounding the transition after high school by helping them decide whether to apply to a four-year college with a residence hall experience, apply to a community college while working to strengthen independent living and social skills at home, or apply to a vocational training program.

Third, search for a post secondary program that not only has experience with supporting the ASD population, but also incorporates empirically based interventions to address stress and anxiety.  These programs ought to teach higher functioning individuals on the spectrum anxiety management techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing (Reese, Sheldon, & Sherman, 1998), progressive muscle relaxation (Borkovec & Costello, 1993), guided imagery (Hanson et al., 2007), yoga (Bower et al, 2005), and meditation (Goldin & Gross, 2010) – all of which have well documented research supporting their use to relieve stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety can also be managed through exercise programs. Physical exercise increases general cardiac health (Fletcher et al, 1996), reduces the risk of obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers (Rundle, 2010), but also increases the body’s production of natural analgesics known as endorphins (Steinberg & Sykes, 2002) and also decreases the production of stress related hormones, namely cortisol (Thuma et al, 1995). Consequently, the individual who exercises decreases his or her stress naturally without the aid of medications. Although organized team sports may not be an idea form of exercise for individuals on the spectrum, using a pedometer and walking 10,000 steps a day may be an excellent way to teach individuals with ASDs to incorporate exercise into a healthy lifestyle (VanBergeijk, 2009).

A final way to reduce the stress associated with the transition to a post secondary environment is to identify programs that will work with the student’s existing support network. Some college-based transitional programs work with the parents and other caregivers to ease the transition into the world of independence. Through the use of release forms and team meetings, the programs work with family members, therapists, doctors, and psychiatrists to alleviate the student’s and family’s stress and anxiety.

The transition to post-secondary education can be stressful, but it does not need to be a crisis-producing event for the family of a child with an ASD. By planning ahead, giving the person with an ASD opportunities to practice independence and preview programs, and identifying programs that incorporate research-based stress and anxiety management techniques, the transition to life after high school can be well managed and relatively stress free.


Dr. Ernst VanBergeijk, Ernst O. VanBergeijk, PhD, MSW is the Associate Dean and Executive Director of New York Institute of Technology’s Vocational Independence Program.

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