Job-Ready? The gap between policy and practice for Australian students on the autism spectrum transitioning out of secondary school

In this blog post, PhD candidate Lara Maia-Pike describes her research, which aims to map the post-school transition planning experiences and aspirations of students on the autism spectrum over time. If this important research interests you or someone you know,  please visit the project website.


In October this year, the Australian Federal Senate passed the Job-ready Graduates Package as part of the Government’s plan for education to help drive Australia’s recovery from COVID-19. This policy adds to a string of education reforms implemented since the 1990s to increase access and participation in higher education and improve employment outcomes for young people. Despite these measures, the transition from compulsory education to full-time employment has become increasingly uncertain for young adults.

Whilst a volatile labour market and growing complexity of career pathways pose many challenges for young people, individuals on the autism spectrum usually experience poor outcomes when transitioning out of secondary school. Often, they face significant barries navigating their way into post-secondary education, employment, independent living and participation in the community. As a result, they have lower workforce participation and lower educational achievement than their peers. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics release of the Disability, Ageing and Carers survey shows that the unemployment rate for people on the autism spectrum is almost three times higher than for people with disability, and more than eight times the rate for people without disability. In fact, the unemployment gap for individuals on the autism spectrum is getting worse.

Transitioning out of school

Finishing high school is a significant event for young people as they build their independence and are expected to take on more adult-like roles and responsibilities. Transition planning in secondary school is a process that helps students plan, prepare and work towards achieving their future directions and goals beyond compulsory education. This includes preparing students to transition to employment, post-secondary education or vocational training. Student participation in this process and collaboration between family and school are key factors for effective transition planning. For young people with disability, effective transition planning has been linked to more positive post-school outcomes and greater community participation.

In Australia, many government policies targeting transition planning have focused on raising the aspirations of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to improve post-school outcomes. However, there is a growing body of research criticising this aspiration-raising agenda. Much of the research on students’ aspirations to higher education, for example, has found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have lower aspirations. Instead, they have less navigational capacity, that is, they lack access to economic, social and cultural resources making it more difficult for them to realise their aspirations.

In Queensland, transition planning takes effect through the Senior Education and Training (SET) Plans, which was first implemented in 2002 as a strategy to manage post-school transitions, particularly for students at risk of dropping out of school. SET plans have been designed to guide students in creating a road map for senior high school and plan possible post-school destinations. In most schools, students complete their SET plans in Year 10. For students with disability, the Queensland Department of Education has in place additional guidelines recommending transition planning to start earlier in junior secondary school.

Although extensive research shows that effective transition planning in senior schooling provides a range of positive life-long outcomes for students, research around transition planning practices and student experience in Queensland schools is limited, particularly with respect to students with disability. Likewise, current research on youth aspirations has focused on students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and has not yet addressed aspirations as a navigational capacity for people with disability.

What is this project about?

In this project, I want to learn about the transition planning experiences of students on the autism spectrum in mainstream schools in Queensland. I also want to investigate if and how the transition planning experiences influence and shape students’ educational and career aspirations. I will be conducting activity-oriented interviews with Year 10 students on the autism spectrum to map their navigational capacity and learn about their transition planning experiences. I will also interview parents and school staff to determine what types of resources these students have access to. Examining the experience of students on the autism spectrum during the transition planning process will contribute to our understanding of how policies focusing on successful transitions and supports for students on the autism spectrum are enacted in schools in Queensland. One of the intended outcomes for this study is to gain insights on how to better support young people on the autism spectrum during their transition planning.

How can I or someone I know become involved in this research?

I am currently seeking participants for my study Aspirations Through Time. Specifically, I want to work with adolescents on the autism spectrum, aged around 15 years, enrolled in Year 10 in 2021 in a mainstream school in Queensland. I am also interested in speaking to these students’ parents or carers and teachers who are supporting them with the SET planning process. If you want to learn more about the project and to access participant information, please visit the project website.

Final thoughts

I hope that my research can highlight effective ways that schools can support students on the autism spectrum transitioning out of school and collaborate with families to positively influence students’ life-course.



Lara Maia-Pike is an HDR member of C4IE and a PhD candidate at QUT. She is an equity practitioner in higher education currently working in outreach programs supporting high-school students to think about their post-school options. Her research interests are in social justice, youth transitions and inclusive education. She can be contacted at

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