Kids with special needs—especially autism—can struggle with the many transitions they have to make throughout the day. Kids tend to hyper-focus on what they are interested in or what they are doing, and don’t welcome disruptions or abrupt changes. Attention shifts require flexible thinking—something that can be challenging for kids.
Children who have autism also have trouble with nonverbal cues, so they may not pick up on things that other children do to prepare them for transitions. That’s why it’s especially important to spell things out clearly and give them visual cues as well as verbal ones.
By helping your child prepare for transition during their day, they will gain a sense of predictability rather than disruption to their routine. Here are a few ideas to make their day go more smoothly.
Create Visuals: Use visual prompts like a timer to let your child know the current activity will be ending soon. You can add visual clues like turning off the light or audio clues like a chime. You can also make a poster with pictures of a day’s activities so your child can follow along.
Plan More Time: Don’t rush their transitions. Allowing more time during the transitions that are difficult will make them go more smoothly. You can also add a sensory break like jumping, skipping, wiggling, or dancing for a couple of minutes between activities.
Establish Routines: There is no guarantee that things will always go perfectly to plan, but setting a daily schedule can help your child feel safe and secure, which helps keep their emotions (and meltdowns) in check. As much as possible, try to stick with the schedule you have laid out. When your child gets fair warning for transitions they don’t feel as pushed around, so they will naturally be more cooperative.
Use Social Stories: For children who have a particularly hard time with transitions, preparing them with relevant social stories ahead of time can be beneficial. These short, simple stories illustrate what will be happening and will help your child understand how to deal with it. These stories allow kids to mentally “practice” the transition in a calm, non-threatening way.
Give two choices: Offering your child a choice can make them more cooperative. Instead of saying: “Do you want to put on your shirt?” say, “Would you like to put on the red shirt or the green shirt?”
Offer Praise: Children will really respond when you tell them they are doing a good job. Don’t forget to recognize when the transitions go well. Be specific with your praise and offer a reward–even something simple like saying, “Great job putting away your toys and brushing your teeth. Now we have more time to read.”
With the right support and strategies, children can learn to change gears without resorting to whining or tantrums. And you can transition to a reward of your own!
Written by Nate Lyon, MS, BCBA, LBA