For individuals with ASD, transition between activities or environments can be difficult for a number of factors. They can create anxiety because of the shift in attention, sensory issues, and uncertainty about what’s to come. Since Autism is a developmental disorder that affects social and communicative abilities, children with ASD have a difficult time conveying their thoughts about transitions, which morphs into frustration, which can turn into a tantrum.
To help kids make transitions easier, there are a few techniques and activities that might be able to help. Please keep in mind that every child is different, so while these suggestions may work for some, they might not work for all.
When a routine or transition is brand new, a child’s anxiety level can go through the roof with feelings of uncertainty. Going from a favored activity to something new that isn’t as exciting can also be tantrum-inducing when they don’t see it coming.
Visual schedules are a great way to provide a road map though their day. By clearly outlining activities, kids get a better idea of what’s next no matter what they’re doing, removing anxiety about transitions. You can find some adorable and interactive visual schedules from Sesame Street for examples.
Visual schedules can also be a great way to reinforce time limits, which bring us to our next tip…
Time it out
Giving any child a timer to visually insinuate a transition can help them mentally prepare for the next activity. For kids with ASD, a timer can make or break the transition from one environment to the next. For example, in the mornings, when a child is getting ready in the bathroom, you can give them a timer and an allotted amount of time so that they know when to move from one activity to the next.
You can find a wide array of timers, from drop timers to good old fashioned stopwatches here.
Kids are naturally curious. Letting them ask questions about what’s coming next is a dandy way to reduce their uncertainty. Reducing uncertainty can help prevent tears during transitions, whether it’s from one activity to the next, or from one environment to the next. Try to answer their questions to the best of your ability. You’re human, and if there is a question you can’t answer, just simply state that you don’t know the answer to that question. Or Google it if you want.
Use positive reinforcement (sometimes)
A tit-for-tat strategy is a tried and true method that Autism moms and dads swear by. The power of reward valence and positive reinforcement should never be underestimated. Bribing kids with a simple, “I’ll give you one gummy worm if you do ________,” provides them with the external motivation to move from one activity to the next. Maybe don’t only use candy, though, ‘cause those dentist bills will be huge for the cavities. Fruits and vegetables, or even trail mix, can be great reinforcement tools.
Of course, this is a tactic best used sparingly. A constant stream of rewards for transitions well done can be detrimental to the development of the internal motivations that will help them socially when they’re older. Still, when you’re struggling to accept transitioning for certain activities, a little treat could provide the breakthrough you need to build on.
Transitioning from transitioning
Struggling with transitions is something every parent faces no matter what their child’s ability or developmental level. Even with all the planning and prep in the world, things might not go smoothly. There might be a lot of tears and tantrums, especially at first, during transitions.
That’s okay! You’re doing amazing things. Remember to stay calm, be clear about expectations, and be consistent with your chose routine. So much of parenting is trial and error, and getting to know what works best for you, your family, and your child. Transitions are tough, but you’re tougher.