“Falling through the cracks”: Challenges for High School Students with Autism


High School is a challenge for most students, and for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) it tends to be an even more difficult transition. In order to explore some of the challenges that these students and their service providers face during their high school experience, Hedges, Kirby, Sreckovic, Kucharczyk, Hume, and Pace (2014) conducted two focus groups: one with parents, teachers, and school staff, and another with individuals with ASD. Because research literature shows that students with ASD have very limited success in post-secondary settings, this research aims to better understand what challenges secondary students are facing and the impact of these challenges and experiences on their post-secondary success in order to work towards better outcomes.

Analysis of the focus group discussions showed three challenges faced by ASD high school students. The first is that high schools are filled with inconsistencies throughout the school day. Students interact with several different teachers daily, each teacher presenting students with different personalities, rules and expectations. There are often schedule changes due to drills, assemblies, etc. that cause adjustment difficulties for students with ASD. Another area of inconsistency is between the amount of support that ASD students received in middle school and what they receive in high school. The amount of support generally decreased rapidly once students enter high school, causing confusion for students and families. Inconsistencies within the home and school environments often cause conflict for the students. For example, the level of independence required at home might be less than the level of independence required at school. This daily transition to and from school can be challenging for an ASD student and can cause difficulties in collaboration between parents and teachers.

The second emerging theme is that many students with ASD find that there are difficulties with interpersonal connections; it is very difficult for students with ASD to build and maintain successful relationships with their teachers, school staff, and peers. Often students with ASD have behaviors that Many parents commented about the lack of friends that child had at school, while teachers noted that the students displayed behaviors that negatively impacted their relationships with peers without ASD. Many students with ASD noted that they experienced negative social interactions and reported being bullied or ostracized. Teachers also mentioned that they found it difficult to interact and connect with students with ASD leading to a lack of the student-teacher relationship.

The final theme discussed in this study was also the most frequently discussed within the focus groups: the general lack of knowledge, preparation, and adequate supports for students with ASD at the high school level (Hedges, et al., 2014). It was found that the roles and responsibilities of high school personnel are often unclear and that staff felt like they had too many responsibilities and roles across the school, without sufficient time to perform them, resulting in the inability to adequately provide services to students with ASD. The gross lack of knowledge about ASD within school staff was also discussed at length within the focus groups. General education teachers have not been adequately prepared to teach students with ASD; professional development is not present to help classroom teachers effectively teach students with ASD. Finally, although designed to support students with special education needs, the special education process, which can be daunting, can at times create barriers for these students. Parents felt that plans were not adequately implemented; teachers discussed not always knowing how to implement the goals successfully. This leaves the students underserved and everyone involved frustrated.

This is an important study that unpacks some of the barriers that students with ASD face within high school. The first step to alleviating these barriers is recognizing them. While more work will need to be done in this area, it is wonderful to have a study that incorporates the voices of all stakeholders: parents, teachers, school staff, and most importantly the students.


Susan H. Hedges. and Anne V. Kirby. and Melissa A. Sreckovic. and Suzanne Kucharczyk. and Kara Hume. and Stephanie Pace. ““Falling through the Cracks”: Challenges for High School Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” The High School Journal 98.1 (2014): 64-82. Project MUSE. Web. 14 Jan. 2015. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.