Transitions: Three Tips to Make Them Easier for Children with Autism

Young girl putting stickers on a boardTransitions: What Are They? Why Are They Difficult for Children with Autism?
A transition occurs when there is some sort of change to the parameters of an activity or situation, such as going from one activity to a different activity or changing plans. For example, going from playing computer to doing homework, riding the school bus home, going on vacation, going out for ice cream with dad when you planned on doing that with mom — all represent examples of transition situations.

The problem with transitions is that either something is ending, or something is beginning. Often, this means going from doing something preferred to doing something nonpreferred.  This can be problematic for just about anyone. For the autistic individual who is very driven by being comfortable, being obligated to stop doing preferred, comfortable activities is even tougher. After all, why would one want to stop playing a favorite video game just to take a bath?

As for all human beings, as well as for individuals on the spectrum, transitions mean uncertainty. Increased uncertainty means increased anxiety. New situations mean different rules and expectations. Rigidness and routine adherence are coping characteristics of autism, and these serve to reduce uncertainty, thereby reducing anxiety. These qualities tend to make transition situations that much more difficult.

Here are a few things you, as a parent, can do to make transitions a little easier for yourself and your child.

Scheduling: Planning Ahead to Reduce Anxiety
Since uncertainty and the anxiety that goes with it is a large part of the problem with transitions, it makes sense that reducing uncertainty might make transitions easier. Scheduling is an easy way of doing this.

Providing your child with a schedule does two things: It allows your child to have a better sense of what is going to happen in the future, and provides a better sense of control over his life (if you make him a part of the scheduling process).

Here are some tips to maximize the effectiveness of your scheduling strategy:

  1. Schedules should be understandable. Make sure the schedule is written in such a way that the child can read/utilize it. Use pictures instead of words if that will make things more concrete for him/her.
  2. Schedules need to be seen to be effective. Make sure the schedule is easily available or can be carried by your child so they can refer to it whenever they need to do so.
  3. Scheduling should be a collaborative activity. Whenever possible, give your child both choices of activities and the order in which they will be done. This increases your child’s sense of control and reduces uncertainty and anxiety.

The “Ease-in” Proactive Warning Strategy
Give your child as much warning as possible about upcoming transitions. Instead of just springing change on your child with little or no warning, give him/her time to mentally process and prepare for the change. Making the sudden mental shift from one activity to another can just be too much for some kids.

Give your child progressive reminders of the upcoming change. So, 10 to 15 minutes before the transition is going to occur, tell your child of what is going to happen, when it is going to happen, and what they need to do. Do this again a few more times, maybe at five minutes and two minutes. You can also do this when the activity itself hasn’t changed but other details of the activity have changed (change in time, who’s going, order of activities, etc.) Giving repeated reminders of what is going to occur beforehand helps reduce uncertainty and alleviate anxiety for your child.

Priming: Setting Expectations ahead of Time
This strategy is simply a variation of the “ease-in” strategy. This is where you review what is going to happen and what the expectations are before going into a given situation. The difference between this and the “ease-in” is that this is done just prior to the transition. It puts your expectations forefront in your child’s mind and makes it more likely that they will remember them. It’s not a guarantee they will follow directions, but it stacks the deck in your favor.

I often use this for more familiar activities. For example, every time I take my kids to the store, I say the following:

“OK kids, we are about to go in the store. Let’s review the rules. We are here to buy [x] and [y]. If you are good, I may get you [z]. Please keep your hands and feet to yourselves. Follow my directions. We will use the bathroom as soon as we get in and that’s it. Finally, if you can’t see me, I can’t see you, so let’s stay together.”

I’ve said this or something like this before every shopping trip with my kids for years. They can sometimes recite it with me. My kids have learned to stay with me in the store. They don’t ask to go to the bathroom 15 times during a shopping trip. They generally behave well, and earn treats as a result. It was not always so easy.

“Grandma’s Law:” The Power of the Premack Principle
The premack principle, or “grandma’s law,” refers to alternating between nonpreferred and preferred activities. In essence, it’s “if you want dessert, you need to finish your vegetables.” By doing this, you can always give your child something to which to look forward, even when he/she has to do something they don’t like doing. This strategy both reduces uncertainty and increases compliance through increased motivation (people are more willing to do nonpreferred activities if this gets them access to or leads to preferred activities).

Incidentally, premacking works really well with scheduling. Alternating between preferred and non-preferred activities will increase the power and motivation of the schedule. This, in turn, will make it easier for your child to make the transitions.

One Last Piece of Advice
These strategies work really well together. Furthermore, the more consistently they are used the better they work. To get this to happen, it behooves you, as parents, to train the other caregivers in your child’s life as to how best to guide them through transition situations. When the child’s parents, teachers, babysitters, home health therapists, etc., are all doing the same thing, your child is going to experience less uncertainty and, therefore, less stress. This, in turn, should result in fewer negative behaviors and better transitions.

I hope you found this information useful and that it makes life with your child a little easier. As always, remember to breathe… you got this.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Brantley

    May 8th, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    My daughter with Autism? HORRIBLE with transitions of any type in any environment. THANK YOU for this advice! I am excited to try all of it and PRAY that it helps. At my witts end!

  • G Raymond

    May 8th, 2013 at 11:55 AM

    Maybe that’s what’s wrong with kids nowadays all you see if them pitchin fits everywhere you go and there moms and dads givin them whatever they want. I can’t hardly go into public no more without some kid pitchin a big ole fit cuz they have to leave the playground or they dont want to leave there friends why can’t parents say no? Maybe this whole autism thing is just a bunch of made up junk parents can buy into so they dont have to stand up and be an actual parent and tell there kids no kids should learn to respect there mom and dad and put what they want on hold and do what there parents tell them to.

  • Team Carter

    May 1st, 2015 at 1:11 PM

    Very ignorant. Do some research. My 2 kids behave and cope with things very differently purely because one has autism and the other doesn’t. Autism is a neurological disorder nothing to do with parenting skills.

  • Candi

    May 8th, 2013 at 11:56 AM

    I find that with my daughter, the more I can talk with her about upcoming changes, the better she does. If I have to spring a change on her without ample warning or having time to talk to her about it a little bit first, then there are times when you would think that this is the end of the world. That’s been kind of hard for me, as I am not really a planner, more of a naturally fly by the seat of my pants kind of gal. But with her, since she is mildly autistic, preparation is the key to making any day of ours run just a bit more smoothly. It has been a change for me too, but I do find that it keeps me a little more relxed too if I plan ahead and talk to her first, it just reduces some of that anxiety for both of us when we both know the plan and the schedule when we have to veer from our norm.

  • Gennifer

    May 8th, 2013 at 11:58 AM

    I didn’t know this was true about Autistic people:

    For the autistic individual who is very driven by being comfortable,

    didn’t realize autistic people were so driven by being comfortable. Guess you learn something every day! :0)

  • Payne

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:01 PM

    Just wondering:

    Is doing all this stuff really helping kids cope?

    Or is it more like just giving them crutches and not ever letting them learn to deal with being uncomfortable?

    I’m all for helping people.

    But not when it really gets in the way of them helping themselves.

  • Shondra

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:05 PM

    OMG-whoever wrote this has never ever dealt. with an autistic kid. I mean come parents. back me. up. who in their right mind. would let an autistic kid HELP make a schedule? That has got to be. the craziest thing i ever heard. in all my life.

    i can get on board. with a schedule. but there is no way. my autistic son is helping. me make it up.

  • McKenzie G

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:14 PM

    Haha! I remember taking the teacher state exam test for teaching kids with emotional and behavioral disorders and the premack principle was on there. It was one of the only questions I had no clue about and never remembered learning. But, when I went home and looked it up, I realized I had gotten the answer right because it made so much sense. What moron lets their kids or students do the fun stuff first? Even totally normal, healthy kids will buck you if you do recess first and Math second. Somebody had to come up with a name for that? Please, people. Don’t be stupid!

  • Ronnie

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:19 PM

    i totally agree-consistency is key with working with autistic kids. i should know seeing as that i have two autistic kids.
    i always make sure everyone around them is doing the exact same thing to the best of my ability.
    it makes life so much easier for both of my kids when they know what’s coming.
    they are able to make transitions better when they see everyone in their worlds on the same page and doing the same thing.
    i think you’re right-it makes them feel more secure and in control.
    i noticed my kids do best when they feel both of those things.
    so if your kid/s has/have just been diagnosed, give these things a try.
    you’ll be amazed at how fast they work.
    you’ll see a big difference and fast.

  • Grannie

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:21 PM

    Really appreciating this right about now-my daughter just called to tell me my grandbaby has been diagnosed with this awful thing. Then, I open up this web page and find this as the first article. I read it and I feel so much better already knowing there are people writing practical advise. Now when my grandbaby comes over, I’ll be better prepared.

  • McKey

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:25 PM

    Man, oh, man. Sure do wish all this had been out when my son was a boy. Too late for him now. He ended up in prison because he just couldn’t handle the way people are the way he related to them just was too much and he snapped one day. Glad all you parents now-a-days have better information than what we had. People just looked at all of us just like G is doing. That made it hard for me and my boy. Just glad it’s different now.

  • denise

    May 8th, 2013 at 9:46 PM

    i’m all for making kids comfortable.and for autistic kids this seems to be a necessity in fact.but how does a parent help make a transition from this scheduled and comfortable life to the outside world where things can change by the minute?if a child sticks to this throughout there is no chance of him or her ever being independent.just how does a parent ensure this does not lead to the development of a protective shell around the child?

  • Shereen

    May 9th, 2013 at 3:56 AM

    Not sure that I can go along with the grandma’s law.
    I mean, “if” you do this you get to do that.
    Doens’t using the word “if” give a child a choice that you may or may not want them to employ?
    I don’t think that using that one little world sets the expectations high enough for the child. If still gives a choice, and there are times when there is no room for a choice.

  • Erik Young, M.Ed., LPC

    Erik Young, M.Ed., LPC

    May 10th, 2013 at 5:03 AM

    There’s a lot of great comments here…let me see if I can address the major concerns.

    First, know that I am not just a clinician, but also a parent. I am raising two boys with pretty severe autism right now. So, the strategies mentioned in this and other articles by me are things I not only know work because there is research to support them but also becuaee I use them every day at home with my own children.

    There seems to be some concern/confusion over the idea of choice and scheduling. I am not proposing you jsut let yuor child make their own schedule. Far from it. I find it helps to have a schedule to refer to to help your child be able to predict what is going to happen during his/her day. However, I like to make the scheduling process collaborative. Yes, there are non-negotiables in the shcedule. You have to get dressed. You have to go to school. On the other hand, there’s lots of places where a child can be encouraged to make some choices. During rec-leisure time, give them a choice of three potential activities to do at that time and let the child choose what they want to do. This is going to help gaurantee that the activity chosen is preferred and more motivating. It also gives the child a further sense of control over their life. You can give the child choice in the order of activities (during chores, do you want to pick up your toys first or make your bed?)

    To the question about is this too protective? It shouldn’t be. We are teaching the child improtant skills like compromise. We are putting comforting things in place so that interaction with the mroe abrasive outside world is perhaps a little easier. We are teaching the child how to be just a little more flexible. These are crucial skills for some on the spectrum to learn.

    These are great questions, please keep them coming!

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