Helping Resistant Children with Transitions

"My child with autism (high functioning) still has trouble with transitions. Social stories don’t work that well for him. To get him to stop doing what he’s doing to get ready for bed (as just one example) is like pulling teeth. Help!"

Here’s a 7-step plan for giving your youngster with Aspergers or High Functioning Autism (HFA) plenty of warning and helping him make transitions more calmly:

1. 10-minute warning: Tell your youngster, "You’ve got 10 more minutes" (parent’s secret: unless your youngster is watching the clock or is a stickler for accuracy in this area, you can give this warning well before you actually only do have 10 more minutes). Let’s assume that your youngster is ignoring you at this point (e.g., he may be thinking he has plenty of time yet).

2. 5-minute warning: About halfway into the 10-minute warning, say, "You’ve got 5 more minutes" (get at least an acknowledgment that your youngster has received the message at this point). As HFA children often do, let’s assume that your youngster is still ‘dilly dallying’ around (i.e., taking his sweet time).

3. Warnings by the minute: Just as some snooze alarms get louder each time you hit the button, make your warnings more frequent at this point (e.g., give a 4-minute warning …3-minute …2-minute (parent’s secret: the countdown doesn't have to actually correspond to factual time; you can say, for example, that he only has 2-minutes left, but he may actually have 2 ½). In any event, let your youngster know that it's time to get organized for a change.

4. Warnings by the second: At this point, your youngster should be at least reluctantly moving toward change. Count down in 10-second increments at this point (e.g., you’ve got 50 seconds …40 …30 …and so on).

5. An extra 10-count: If your youngster is still goofing off, tell him he has a count of 10 to get with it. Then count up from 1 to 10. And move on.

6. This technique should work with those kids on the autism spectrum who have difficulty with motor planning and change. However, you will want to calibrate the amount of time used to your particular youngster's needs. The countdown described above is merely an example, and one that can be tailored according to the situation – and your child’s temperament.

7. A stopwatch or a timer can sometimes also be effective countdown tools. When choosing a timer, opt for one that will be most appropriate for your youngster, and make sure that it is something that he will easily understand. While a digital timer may be an appropriate choice for older kids, this may not be well suited for younger ones. For younger kids who still do not have a concept of time, the hourglass timer usually works best – not only because it is more interesting, but also because it is easier to understand. Since younger kids may not know how long 3 minutes is, the hourglass timer gives them a visual of how long 3 minutes actually is.

Before you use the timer, let your youngster know what the timer is for. Let him know that the timer keeps track of when he needs to switch activities (e.g., “When the timer goes off, it is time for you to stop playing your video game and get ready for bed.”). Explain it simply and use words that will make him understand.

When using the timer, it is also important that you provide warning signals (e.g., ringing of a soft bell, gentle snapping of the fingers, etc.) when the time is almost over. This way, your youngster will be ready when the time runs out and will not feel surprised or rushed. The important thing is to be consistent and to always use the same warning signals. This way, it will become part of the routine.

Tips to help you be successful with the “transitioning” method outlined above:

1. Be consistent. Use the same warning time and words every time. This makes it easier for your youngster to understand and adjust to the transitions. By knowing what the expectations are, he will transition easier.

2. Do as much as possible beforehand. Pick out clothes the night before, make sure his shoes are readily available, etc.

3. Evaluate situations that are difficult. If there is a particular situation that causes major problems during transitions, evaluate the circumstances surrounding the situations. For example, it could be that your child doesn't want to do the next activity due to sensory issues or other problems. It could be that the schedule needs adjustment, or that other accommodations need to be in place.

4. Make sure all of the “extra activities” are taken care of beforehand. It is easier to get out the door when the boy or girl can’t pause when it opens and exclaim, “I have to go to the bathroom!” Take care of those needs before you walk out the door. Do the same with food and drink. Better yet, bring a water bottle and a snack (one less excuse for your youngster to dawdle).

5. Make your youngster part of the team. Enlist his help in order to get out the door on time. Have a checklist and allow him to check off what gets done, or have him help load important items into the car if you are leaving.

6. Negotiate transitions when possible. For example, if he’s playing video games and you want him to stop so he can get some homework done, you can say, “Do you want to continue playing your game for another 30 minutes and then do your homework – or do you want to stop for now, do some homework, and then go back to your game for 60 minutes? So, 30 minutes now – or 60 minutes later …what’s your preference?”

7. Never underestimate the power of a good social story. If you’ve tried social stories, but they didn’t work, it may have just been a poorly applied story. Social stories are a wonderful tool for working with Aspergers and HFA children. The value of seeing his name in print with clear expectations will be golden for your youngster. A social story is a simple story naming the youngster along with the story of what you want him to accomplish.

8. Respect your youngster’s need for a warning. When an HFA child is engaged in an activity, it is very difficult for him to move on to the next activity. Teaching him how to transition takes patience and time on your part. By giving a warning, the youngster will have an easier time accepting transitions.

9. Teach your child to tell time. The sooner you do it, the easier it becomes for your son or daughter to understand the passage of time and how it works.

10. Use rewards. When a kid on the spectrum is engaged in an activity, sometimes it is difficult to get him to transition to a new activity. In order to help him, offer some incentive to change activities (e.g., a preferred food or item, a desired activity later in the day, etc.).

A plan for blatant resistance: “This Tantrum Is Not Solving Your Problem”

If your child flat-out refuses to make the transition from the current activity to the next one – or worse yet – throws a temper tantrum, help him understand that “resistance” and “throwing a tantrum” will not help him get what he wants. For example, let’s say he’s watching television …then you come along and want him to get ready for dinner. Your first request for this transition is met with stiff confrontation (e.g., yelling and throwing the remote). You can say, “If your problem is that you want to watch TV, then yelling and throwing the remote is not solving that problem …it’s just prolonging the problem! If you want to solve that problem, then come and eat a few bites, then you watch TV some more.”

==> Preventing Meltdowns and Tantrums in Kids on the Autism Spectrum


•    Anonymous said... for the ideas
•    Anonymous said... Hi my son is 15 and he still has no concept of time I'm finding him very hard work ATM he never wants to do anything he can be snappy towards me has anyone any ideas please or suggestions many thanx x
•    Anonymous said... I have those magnet ones, my iphone app I got works great too. We use them for night time routines usually now. I used to have one in each area of my home.
•    Anonymous said... I've learned that my son needs a "5 minute warning" before a transition (even if it's not a true five minutes). If I spring something on him, he wigs out.
•    Anonymous said... jp always needed a warning 10 min then 5 min and then i had to say time for dinner and lead the way. sometimes we sang a tidy up song before bed and we still have an identical bedtime routine. i find routine and consistency the best for him
•    Anonymous said... Just make sure the timer is a pleasing noise!! My son is now scared of timers because the load noise bothers him! The timer we used had a ringing noise and it actually caused more problem than the transition!
•    Anonymous said... My son is 5-1/2 and we use an hourglass timer. And also a picture to do list. Pictures of the activities in order is something he has really been able to follow and with the timer for each activity it really helps him feel like he can be prepared for what's next.
•    Anonymous said... Thanks for sharing the link to that timer - it is really cool! I usually do a verbal time warning. I used to do 10 minutes then 5 minutes and so on. We can now do a 5 minute warning, then a 2 minute and 1 minute warning before any kind of change - getting off the computer, time to leave, etc...
•    Anonymous said... The tricks depend on the age and what kinda kid. My son does better with "finish the chapter" than time as I think he's a bit OCD and really compulsive about finishing and saving (like in Minecraft--Roblox has been hugely frustrating for the lack of saving "all that work"). For recurring transitions, predictable "transition helpers" work for us. Like (pls don't blast me for the food thing) when we leave McD's after eating and playing, my kids get their dessert (a cookie) in the car. On the computer, we have been using Family Safety in Win8 to regulate time spent. I especially love that I can really customize the curfew settings by adding in 1/2 hr curfews for meals in addition to the whole time limit for the day. Most kids get really wrapped up and forget to eat. Good luck!
•    Anonymous said... There are great visual timer apps for the iPad and smart phones. They have worked well for my 4 -year-old daughter. She also has trouble with transitions.
•    Anonymous said... there are some cool timers used in autistic classrooms that work on the principal of a traffic light, green, yellow, red,this gives the child a warning,, and a visual indicater
•    Anonymous said... This is my son exactly!! Especially at dinner time. But not only is it a challenge to get him to the table, it's also a nightmare to get him to stay there. Or to do anything I ask of him really.
•    Anonymous said... We don't uses timers but I am thinking would be good to show some patience. Any meal time I have our 5 yr old help I incorporated his schooling time with cooking time. Now he is not a big eater so we are working on it. The more we do meal cooking really new stuff he will try a lil bit. That is a huge step.
•    Anonymous said... We set the oven timer and remind him every few minutes of how long he has until whatever it is we want him to do eg, pack his school bag, turn off the Wii, brush his teeth, come to the dinner table. It always works. We can never just spring something onto him...he is very literal and visual.
•    Anonymous said... we use a hand held cooking timer ($6 @ walmart) but try it out before buying because the bell/ringer can be too loud! We let our 5yr old son set it himself so he feels some control over what's going on. before beginning any activity, we let him know how much time is allowed for that event (10 min.) & when it's over, we will move on to the next activity (name it - bath time, dinner, etc.). he likes knowing what the upcoming activity is, but not more than that. At the 5 min. mark, I countdown each minute until the bell rings, he loves it! At 2 min. mark, I explain that he has 2 minutes left, but that the next activity (eating) will be great because (we're having his favorite dish). It helps make the transition smoother when he's down to the last minute. My son really likes a schedule, a time-table of events/activities, but has to be fore-warned when changing from each activity.
•    Anonymous said... Welcome to my life. I find that touching him and speaking directly works well. Calling from downstairs I do not reccommend unless you want to call atleast 10 times. When he is playing lego he is lost in his own world.

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