Coping with Transitions: Tips for Teachers of Students on the Autism Spectrum

"One of my new students this year has Autism (high functioning female, age 6). She will throw a major temper tantrum whenever she is asked to stop one activity and get ready for the next one, which is very disruptive to the entire class. What can I do to help her move from one task to the next quickly and without resistance? It's like she has to complete the first project completely and perfectly before she is willing to go to the next."

First of all, your student may be experiencing a "meltdown" rather than a tantrum (click here to see the difference). Transitions are very difficult for children with ASD, or High-Functioning Autism. It's an interruption to their day and a change in their schedule. In order to minimize difficulty in transition, try to keep their schedule as routine as possible. Always let them know ahead of time that a transition in routine is coming. 

Using sensory integration techniques can be very helpful for some ASD students. It is best to have an occupational therapist work with you to first determine if your student is hyper-sensitive or hypo-sensitive (e.g., does she crave movement and the feeling of different textures and stimulation, or does she avoid movement and textures?).

There was a young autistic student who had a great deal of difficulty with the transition from home to school, and with transitions that occurred in his school day. The school created a sensory room that was just his. He craved movement, running and jumping on furniture, loved to feel his saliva against smooth surfaces, and loved strong odors. In his sensory room, there was a large hammock for him to lie in that would hold him tight. 
The ceiling was lined with colored lights. There were boxes with potpourri for him to smell. He would spend 20 minutes in this room at the beginning of his school day, 20 minutes before lunch, and 20 minutes before returning home. While he was in the room, he was encouraged to take in as much sensory information as he could. Once he left the room, he was calm and ready to learn.

Of course, not every school has the resources for a sensory room - and this won't work for every "special needs" student - but demonstrates how some creative thinking can benefit even the most challenging behaviors. Prior to the intervention of the sensory room, the school was ready to expel him. With the sensory room in place, he became much more compliant, calm and willing to work with teachers and other students.

Here are some additional techniques that will help make transitions easier for your autistic student:

•    When attempting a transition, keep the focus on the enjoyment your student had with her activity and ask questions while you move on to the next activity. It helps her shift from being upset about leaving the current activity to keeping the good feeling with her longer (it’s like saying, “Don’t be upset that the activity is over …be happy that it happened”).

•    Try to avoid giving sudden orders and directions. Before wanting your student to transition, go into her “safe zone” (i.e., whatever she is doing at the moment) and connect with her mentally, emotionally and physically. Talk to your student about what she is doing or something she truly loves. Then, keep that connection going and take it with you while you both move to the next activity.

•    Talk to your student about transitions, and be willing to listen and observe. A good way to start a discussion about transitions, in general, is through social stories. Consider creating a story around “how to calmly move from one task to the next.”

•    Picture schedules and cards can be helpful for ASD students who have a hard time following verbal directions. Pointing to the picture of the next activity, or handing your student the picture and letting her carry it to the next activity can be helpful in transitioning.

•    Give your student a notice when transitions are approaching. A simple, "In 10 minutes, we are going to do our history lessons," is enough to give her a little warning. This lets your student know she should be finishing up what she is working on and allows her the chance to ease into a new state of mind.

•    Create a list of “classroom rules” and review them with your student periodically. The rules should include what to do during specific transitions (e.g., how to move from study-time to getting ready for recess). Post the rules where your student can see them. She will become accustomed to the rules, and understand what to do and what to expect throughout the day.

•    Allow your student enough time to transition. Whether you are preparing for a short-term transition from reading-time to lunch-time, remember that children on the spectrum process change in their own time; they need time to “grow through” the change depending on how drastic that change is going to be.

Transitions will always be difficult for kids on the autism spectrum. Developmentally, they're simply not well-equipped to leave an activity they're enjoying and move to a potentially less desirable one. But thankfully, there are many ways teachers can help their students through these transitions.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


•    Anonymous said... Also a lot of the tips work well for all kids of that age. That way it won't make her feel singled out and self conscious which can cause more meltdowns. I know my daughter is a perfectionist and has high expectations of herself. Anything that makes her feel like she stands out negatively will push her tolerance threshold.
•    Anonymous said... Count downs have saved our little guy from time to leave, to bath, to bed and even on trips, always needs to see the count down
•    Anonymous said... Do you have the day's schedule written out? How about a reminder that you are changing tasks in 5 minutes, then 3..
•    Anonymous said... I always give my Aspie daughters a five minute warning before doing a new activity, leaving the park, leaving a friend's house, etc. "Do your last favorite thing," is what I would tell them when they were younger. It seems to work really well! They know what to expect and what is expected of them.
•    Anonymous said... I found that visual timetables DIDN'T really work for my aspie son, but giving him real reason why something needed to happen was the key. He understands reasons. The Time Timer (you can get various sizes from the Sue Larkey website) was and still is the best tool in my arsenal though. Having THAT visual gave him some element of control back. Also giving them the opportunity to finish at a later time can sometimes help. If they finish other work quickly or instead of play...My son would recognise that this was our routine and then transition better knowing that he could come back to it.
•    Anonymous said... I give a fifteen minute countdown with a reminder at each 5 minute mark. Your class environment will go as smoothly as you plan it to. Learn about Aspergers and talk to her parents. They will give you tips and they'll work iF you follow through with them.
•    Anonymous said... Let her finish the first project.
•    Anonymous said... please listen to the parents about what works best for them at home and adjust that accordingly to fit your particular needs. I have had little success with teachers over the past seven years mainly in part to them not being willing to try the simplest strategies. The child will only benefit if she is comfortable at any given moment and there is an open line of communication between the teachers and parents.
•    Anonymous said... She still might be overwhelmed despite a countdown (I would be); do you have free time built in where she/they can finish unfinished activities? She might also feel better knowing she can come back to it before the end of the day (and knowing exactly when, not "later").
•    Anonymous said... We had this problem in kindergarten. I give my 7 year old daughter a run down of what we will do that day, and then warning half an hour before the event, and I know I will have to get her new teacher to do the same cos it's worked best for us. Now that she can tell time, I can do that as well ("We are going at 10:00 am," etc)
•    Anonymous said... without reading all of the previous comments..... From experience (16 yr old) there is no such thing as 'quickly, without resistance' ! ..... The key is regular warnings/countdowns to the change over time AND as Rebecca ^ stated....'real/true/logical' reasoning...these kids are smart and because they are so black and white....very, very realistic!
•    Anonymous said... Would it hurt you or the other students to give her a little more time and let her finish? I'm sure the "melt down" (not temper tantrum) effect's the other students way more then trying to force her to stop a activity. In my son's IEP he is allowed to get up and wonder around in the class room or go outside. He is not expected to do what all the other students are doing....he isn't the same.
•    Anonymous said... Written schedules help tremendously. Come up with a signal that she and you agree on to let her know the transition is coming, and give her double the warning you give the other kids.
•    Anonymous said... You can't expect anyone with aspergers to transition quickly. They need prompting and visuals. The Time Timer is a wonderful tool. It's useful for all kids and doesn't single her out. Visual schedules posted clearly and reviewed every morning are also helpful for all kids. Don't assume because she has a dx that there aren't other kids in the class being overlooked, treat them all the same and things will run smoothly:) Anytime you sneak attack a change in routine, expect the behaviors. Guess what, we as adults are no different. Think about a traffic jam and you have a schedule to keep;) Unmet expectations are frustrating to us all. We need clear cut expectations. Be patient and good luck.


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