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Difficulty with Transitions: How Teachers Can Assist Students on the Autism Spectrum

All students must change from one activity or setting to another throughout the school day. Transitions naturally occur frequently and require children to stop an activity or move from one location to another, and begin something new. Students with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) often have greater difficulty in shifting attention from one task to another. This is due to a greater need for predictability, challenges in understanding what activity will be coming next, or difficulty when immersion in a favorite activity is disrupted.

Several supports to assist students on the autism spectrum have been designed both to prepare them before the transition will occur, and to support them during the transition. When transition techniques are used, these “special needs” kids are able to increase appropriate behavior during transitions, participate more successfully in school outings, reduce the amount of transition time, and rely less on teacher-prompting. Transitioning strategies can be used before a transition occurs, during a transition, or after a transition. Also, they can be presented verbally or visually. These techniques attempt to increase predictability, create positive routines around transitions, and are utilized across settings to support “special needs” students.

A variety of factors related to autism spectrum disorders contribute to difficulties during transitions. For example:
  • difficulty sequencing information and recognizing relationships between steps of an activity
  • greater anxiety levels, which impact behavior during times of unpredictability
  • having restrictive patterns of behaviors that are hard to disrupt, thus creating difficulty at times of transitions
  • inability to recognize the subtle cues leading up to a transition (e.g., children packing up their materials, educators wrapping up their lesson, etc.)
  • problems comprehending all of the verbal information when a teacher or parent announces that an activity is finished and provides multi-step directions related to upcoming activities
  • problems in understanding the verbal directives that a teacher or parent is providing
  • the ongoing activity may be more reinforcing to the AS or HFA student than the activity he or she is moving to, or a second activity may be more demanding

Simple requests to move from one activity or setting to the next can lead to refusal and even behavior outbursts from children with AS and HFA. This doesn't mean these young people are trying to be difficult or can't follow directions. Transitions are among the most difficult times of the day for many children on the autism spectrum. Transitions require flexibility and executive functioning skills. In the classroom, children must transition frequently with little support. But, transition difficulties are at the root of many non-compliance incidents. When AS or HFA children "never follow directions," "don't stop reading when asked," or "have to be chased to come in from the playground," their noncompliance is symptomatic of a fundamental problem with transitioning. Teachers and parents often ask these “special needs” children to do something they don't have the skills to execute.

How can we help young people on the spectrum to handle transitions more successfully so they don't become uncooperative?

There are four components to a transition, and it's equally important to support AS and HFA children whether they are having difficulty with one – or all of them. Here's an example: "Put your art supplies away. It's time for lunch!"

1. Stop the current task: “Special needs” kids need extra support finding a stopping place in activities. They need specific instruction on how to find a stopping place (e.g., “Stop drawing in 15 seconds from now. I will count down.”).

2. Start thinking about the next task: These children usually have to make a mental shift before they transition physically. They have to stop thinking about art and start thinking about lunch. Help them visualize the new task. Use a visual schedule (e.g., students sitting in the cafeteria) so they know what's coming and can be prepared.

3. Begin the next task: Anxiety significantly affects the ability to begin an anxiety-provoking task (e.g., a child who does not do well in noisy environments and/or large groups, such as the cafeteria). Besides countdown transition warnings, many kids on the autism spectrum need help beginning the new activity. Often, accommodations are necessary to support initiation. For example:
  • Help them start— Educators typically give children work, then moments later offer help to a child who hasn't started. By the time you get to an AS or HFA student at that point, he may be highly anxious and/or shut-down. For these “special needs” children, use a different approach. If you have only 30 seconds for each child in your classroom, make it the first 30 seconds for the AS or HFA child with anxiety who requires support to initiate a task.
  • Preview the upcoming task— You can't preview enough for children with AS and HFA. In the morning, most educators review a visual schedule of the day. Preview alone doesn't necessarily alleviate a child’s anxiety toward a particular subject – and doesn't help her initiate the task when it comes time. If a spelling quiz triggers a child’s anxiety, knowing that the quiz will be given at 11:00 AM doesn't necessarily reduce that anxiety. Anticipation may even increase her anxiety all morning. Thus, as a supplement to reviewing the schedule, preview the actual piece of work (e.g., "I’m going to tell you some of the words that will be on the quiz. Let's spell the first word together"). When the spelling quiz comes, the youngster has an entry point and hopefully won't have an initial avoidance response.

4. Wait for the next task to happen: It's common for AS and HFA children to have difficulty with waiting for things to happen during the day (e.g., waiting for materials to be passed out, standing in line, etc.). First, teachers need to help children to identify “wait time.” Through the use of videos, social stories or role-play, you can demonstrate how to identify “wait time” when it's beginning. When the child knows she's being asked to be on standby, you can teach structured activities to keep her occupied and productive. For example, younger kids can draw or perform a helpful task, such as pushing in chairs. Older kids can think of history trivia.

Some specific transitioning strategies include the following:

Visual Timer— It is often helpful for AS and HFA students to “see” how much time remains in a particular task before they will be expected to transition to a new one. The use of a visual timer (e.g., the “Time Timer” available at www.timetimer.com) has been proven to be quite helpful. The timer displays a section of red indicating an allotted time, and the red section disappears as the allotted time runs out.

Completion Box— Place a box in a designated location where students can place items that they are finished with when it is time to transition. When work-time or free-time is completed (as indicated by a visual timer), the child can be instructed to put his items in the completion box before transitioning. This will assist in creating a clear and predictable transition routine, which will decrease transition time and increase positive behavior. Oftentimes, students on the autism spectrum prefer to complete a particular task before moving on to the next one, but this may not be possible due to time constraints (e.g., when it is time to go to lunch). In these cases, establishing a location where the AS or HFA student knows she can find the materials to finish-up at a later time or date may be helpful.

Photo Cues— Using a visual cue during a transition decreases challenging behavior and increases following transition demands. Photo cues can be used with AS and HFA students during transitions from one task to another, from the playground to inside the classroom, and from one room within the school to another. At transition times, staff can present these children with a photo of the location where they will be going. This will allow them to see where they are expected to go and provide additional predictability in their day.

Task Adjustment— Consider adjusting the tasks that AS and HFA students are transitioning to - and from - if transition difficulty continues. Certain critical factors (e.g., length of the task, difficulty level, interest level, etc.) all contribute to transition problems. Likewise, if a particular location is too crowded, noisy or over-stimulating, AS and HFA students may resist transitioning to that area. A check of the environmental factors that could contribute to transition difficulties is highly recommended. Also, the sequence of tasks may need to be reviewed. Review the tasks required of the AS or HFA student throughout the day and categorize them as “preferred,” “non-preferred,” or “neutral.” If the student has difficulty transitioning, it may be helpful to strategically sequence certain activities so that the student is moving from non-preferred tasks to preferred tasks, and from preferred tasks to neutral tasks.

3-Step Transition Process— One of the most difficult transitions is from a preferred task to a non-preferred task (e.g., “Free-time is over, so get ready to read a chapter in your history book”). It's difficult for AS and HFA kids to stop a preferred task, let alone initiate a dreaded one. Stopping a pleasurable task to do something that is both boring and difficult is a set-up for transition problems. Instead, have the youngster transition more gradually from the preferred (step 1) to less-preferred (step 2) to non-preferred (step 3) task. The child will require less shifting and flexibility. Instead of going directly from free-time (preferred) to history (non-preferred), add an intermediate step (e.g., "Sit down at your desks, and you can color for a few minutes"). Once the child is coloring at her desk, shift to the history lesson.

Visual Schedule— AS and HFA students often benefit from the use of a visual schedule that is located in a central transition area in the classroom. However, if the schedule is centrally located, these students will need a cue to know when and how to transition to their schedules to get information. Using a consistent visual cue to indicate when it is time to transition is helpful, because concrete cues can reduce confusion and help in developing productive transition routines. When it is time for the student to access her visual schedule, present her with a visual cue that means “go check your schedule.”

Many students with AS and HFA report that transitions cause great anxiety. Transitions for some of these “special needs” children result in academic difficulties, social and/or emotional problems, poor motivation, decreased attendance, decline in self-esteem, and increased dropout rates. Since teachers and other school staff are charged with helping these students become well-adjusted in the academic setting, they have an important role in assisting students' adaptation to change.

Throughout the school day, students are confronted with an array of transitions, teacher expectations, standards of behavior, and social pressure to fit-in with their classmates. Kids who are different in any way often have difficulty adjusting to all of this. AS and HFA students may find conforming difficult and may require individual consideration. By using some of the suggestions above, teachers and parents can help the “special needs” child cope effectively while moving from one activity or setting to the next.

Teaching Students with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism


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