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Christopher Lynch Ph.D.
Christopher Lynch Ph.D.

Smoother Transitions for Children on the Autism Spectrum

Five strategies to ease movement from one task to another.

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

A "transition" occurs when a child has to move from one task or situation to another. Children are required to make multiple transitions during the day.

Daily transitions include getting ready in the morning, going off to school, moving from class to class, going to and returning from after school activities, having dinner, starting homework, and getting ready for bed. Within each of these larger transitions, a child has to make multiple mini-transitions.

Most children can negotiate transitions without much difficulty. If a child does protest, it is usually because they are being asked to move from a desirable activity to a less desirable activity (any parent who has asked a child to put down a video game to start homework knows what I am talking about!)

However, for children on the spectrum, transitions (of all types) can be quite challenging. Even relatively straightforward directions such as, "Get your shoes on. It's time to go," or "Get your book out and turn to page 20," may need to be repeated multiple times before a child does what is required.

With autism, the difficulty with making transitions is not intentional. Instead, the child struggles with making the cognitive adjustments necessary to move on. As a consequence, transitions in autism are often plagued with stress, anxiety, and frustration.

Why Are Transitions so Difficult for Kids with Autism?

Kids on the autism spectrum can become very intensely engaged in what they are doing or thinking about. This can be a great strength, reflecting persistence and contributing to the child's deep knowledge of a subject. However, this trait can create challenges when the child is required to stop one task and move on to another. The child essentially becomes "stuck" in a task and monumental effort is required to pull them out of it.

Additionally, the neuropsychological process known as the 'Executive Function' is heavily involved in making transitions. This function helps the brain to shift and reallocate attention and other brain resources when required. In autism, there are often gaps in this system. Because of these gaps, the brain may struggle with stopping one task and transferring attention and other thought processes onto another.

5 Ways to Make Transitions Smoother for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Although transitions can be challenging for kids on the autism spectrum, there are strategies that can help to make them smoother including:

1. Give advance notice before a transition is going to occur.

Announcing that it's time to switch gears without providing any notice can be quite distressful for a child on the spectrum. Advance notice helps the brain to get ready to shift to another task thereby relieving anxiety.

2. Use visual supports.

Time can be an abstract concept so when referring to time to help with a transition it often helps to represent it visually. You can use a simple egg timer or any number of higher-tech visual timers such as visual clocks on phone apps. Alternatively, you can avoid references to time by showing the child a visual representation of what's coming next. Such supports can be delivered through a visually-supported schedule or by presenting drawings or photographs of the upcoming task.

3. Use structure and consistency.

Structure and consistency will help reduce the amount of work that the brain needs to do to make a transition. It helps to keep materials for upcoming tasks in an easily identifiable and consistent place. Keeping the general order of daily tasks consistent can also help to make transitions become more automatic.

4. Use reduced language.

When children are having difficulty with making transitions there is a temptation to use language to try to move them along. This often backfires for kids on the spectrum. More language can lead to verbal overload which will only increase anxiety and make the transition take even longer to occur.

Instead, use a few keywords when asking a child to make a transition. This is referred to as 'reduced language'. Reduced language clarifies expectations without overloading the brain with irrelevant information.

For example, consider the difference between the two sets of directions:

Example A:

"Come on. Get your socks and shoes on because we are going over to Auntie Mary's for your cousin's birthday party and don't forget what happened last time when we were late and they started without us and we didn't get any cake!"

Example B:

"Time for your cousin's party. Socks and shoes on" (parent holds up socks and shoes).

With Example A, there was an unnecessary reference to the past and an emotional appeal that just wasn't useful.

Example B made one short reference to what the transition was (going to the party), one short reference to what needed to be done to start the transition (socks and shoes on), and simple visual support (holding up the socks and shoes)

Please note: you do not want or need to talk to your child or student like this all of the time—only when you need to get a point across clearly.

5. Provide light praise for good transitions.

Gently point out when the child has made a good transition and briefly point out why that is a positive. This will encourage your child to be more receptive to working on making quicker transitions.

Key Takeaways

  • Transitions can be challenging for children on the autism spectrum.
  • There are strategies that can help to make transitions smoother thereby relieving distress and frustration.
About the Author
Christopher Lynch Ph.D.

Christopher Lynch, Ph.D., is a psychologist who specializes in stress and anxiety management for children with autism. He is the Director of the Pediatric Behavioral Medicine Department at Goryeb Children's Hospital.

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