While most children struggle with transitions at some point in their lives (hello, Terrible Twos!), children with developmental delays such as autism can find it particularly difficult to move from one activity to another. They may become visibly agitated and overwhelmed, express feelings of sadness and anger, and some may erupt into a full-blown meltdown, especially when they are expected to transition from an activity they enjoy to something less desirable.
When considered from a logical point of view, this inability to cope with change in kids with autism makes perfect sense. Communication challenges, rigidity, sensory problems, emotional difficulties, and cognitive deficiencies can make the lives of children on the autism spectrum extremely confusing and difficult. They depend on predictability and consistency to help make sense of the world around them, and when faced with disruptions, they find it difficult to cope.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where change is inevitable, and learning effective transition strategies for kids with autism can make all the difference in helping to make their lives a little less overwhelming.
Whether you’re a parent looking for transition strategies to help your child with autism cope with day-to-day tasks more easily, or a teacher looking for tips and tricks to make classroom transitions easier, we’ve got 10 brilliant ideas to get you started!
START FROM THE BEGINNING
Take a moment to figure out exactly why your child struggles with transitions. Observe her reactions over the course of 3-5 days and each time you see her becoming upset, write down all of the things that happen leading up to her outburst. Is she struggling to communicate with you? Is she overwhelmed with excitement? Is she feeling angry that she’s moving from an activity she loves to one she hates? Are there any sensory stimuli – such as loud noises – preceding a change in activity that may be upsetting her? Write it all down and see if you can find any consistencies.
FIND EFFECTIVE CUES & PROMPTS
In a classroom setting, teachers often use some sort of cue to indicate an activity is coming to an end. They may ring a bell, turn the lights on and off, or play a music clip as a signal that a transition is imminent, and while neuro-atypical children may find this helpful, a child with autism may find it overwhelming. Consider your child’s individual challenges and try a few ideas out to see how she reacts. Dimming the lights ever so slightly 5 minutes before a transition may be less overwhelming, and using a timer (we LOVE the Time Timer) with the sound turned off to help your child remain cognizant of time throughout each activity may be a much better option.
USE VISUAL SCHEDULES
A visual schedule helps reassure your child not only about what is going to happen, but it also helps satisfy the need for predictability by outlining a set of events, and teaches her to look for information instead of memorizing it. Kids with autism have a tendency of getting into the habit of doing the same things in the same sequence, and visual schedules help demonstrate that the order of activities can change, making them more open to new things and better able to cope when something unexpected comes up. By giving your child a visual representation of her day, you are empowering her by allowing her to look to the visual schedule and move from one activity to the next without prompting. Click HERE for some of our favorite visual schedules for kids with autism!
MAKE TRANSITIONS SLOW
In a classroom setting, transitions tend to be fast and furious. One of my friends is a kindergarten teacher and she once told me her class can have up to 18 transitions in ONE day, which is hard for any child, let alone a kid on the autism spectrum. The good news is that we live in a day and age where IEPs are becoming much more common, and finding ways to slow down transitions is key for kids with autism. This may mean that your child participates in fewer activities throughout the day, but if it helps her cope with her environment and lessens negative reactions, it is definitely one of many transition strategies to consider!
USE A TIMER
Timers are one of my favorite transition strategies for kids, and I am a huge fan of the Time Timer as it simultaneously helps teach the concept of time to children. I find timers most effective when trying to engage children in activities they don’t enjoy as they can visibly see the time passing and feel assured the activity will not last forever.
CREATE A FIRST/THEN CHART
A first/then chart is a visual representation of what you want your child to do now (FIRST) and what will come after (THEN), and the idea is to make the first task less desirable and to follow it up with some sort of reward. For example, if your child doesn’t enjoy practicing her letter writing, but loves painting, your first/then chart might look like this:
FIRST: practice writing letters for 5 minutes
THEN: painting for 10 minutes
You can make it extra motivating by awarding a sticker/token for each minute of letter writing practice!
MAKE TRANSITIONS EASIER WITH COPING TOOLS
If your child has a particular toy, book, or fidget toy she likes to carry around with her, it may be one of the best transition strategies you can use! While we want our children to be able to participate in activities – particularly those in a classroom setting – without the aid of props, they can help make the transition from one activity to another much less traumatic. Consider offering the object a couple of minutes before a transition occurs and then gradually remove it as your child settles into the next activity. Having it within eye-shot during challenging activities may also be helpful.
WRITE A SOCIAL STORY
Created by Carol Gray, Social Stories are written descriptions of everyday situations and events told from a child’s perspective. The intention behind Social Stories is to give a child something to rehearse so that she’s prepared once the situation described actually takes place, which can be an excellent strategy for helping children through transitions. Check out THIS POST for more about Social Stories and our favorite templates and apps to help you create your own, personalized Social Stories in minutes!
TEACH CALMING STRATEGIES
Equipping your child with appropriate calming strategies can help her manage big emotions during transitions. Here are some of our favorites:
- PRACTICE DEEP BREATHING: It’s no secret that taking deep breaths can help restore a sense of calm when anxiety hits, and a great way to teach this concept is to have your child blow bubbles when she’s feeling anxious. You can keep a stash of mini bubbles in your purse and car to get started, and once she’s mastered the concept, have her practice blowing bubbles without the wand. This will give her an effective coping strategy she can use anywhere and anytime.
- USE REWARDS: We all know kids are motivated by rewards, and a sticker chart or the promise of a special outing with mom or extra time on the iPad are all easy but effective ways to encourage a child during difficult transitions.
- CREATE A CALM DOWN BOX: Another way to make transitions easier is to ensure your little one has tools readily available when big emotions strike. Fidget toys, squeeze balls, and chewing gum are all great classroom-appropriate ideas that can help reduce feelings of anxiety and restore a sense of calm.
ADD FAVORITE ACTIVITIES TO YOUR DAILY SCHEDULE
Another of my favorite transition strategies for kids with autism is to allow them to build their favorite activities into their daily schedule. This is pretty easy to do at home, but can be a little more challenging in a classroom setting. Talk to your child’s teacher to get a sense of the activities she enjoys most each day, and see if her daily work plan can be structured such that her least favorite activities are followed by her most favorite to help keep her motivated.
I recently read a quote that really made me stop and think:
‘Don’t rescue your child from a challenge.
Teach them how to face it.’
This quote reminded me that, as tempting as it may be to find ways for our children to AVOID the things that cause them stress and anxiety, we must remember that is only a short-term solution to a long-term problem. It may help make our lives more bearable today, but it will do nothing to help our children cope in the future.
I hope these transition strategies for kids with autism help inspire you to find ways to make your child’s everyday struggles easier while also equipping her with the tools she needs to develop and grow.
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