Activity-Shifting: Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum to Move Successfully from One Task to Another

"My child has a big problem with making transitions at home (school too). What methods do you use to help your child with autism (high functioning) to get accustomed to switching off one activity and on to another such as moving from a game to coming to the dinner table to eat with the rest of us?"

All children must switch from one task to another - and from one setting to another - throughout the day. At home and school, shifting naturally occurs frequently and requires children to stop one task, move from one spot to another, and begin a new task. Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have greater difficulty in shifting attention from one task to another and changing routines.

This difficulty is due to a greater need for predictability, challenges in understanding what task will be coming next, and emotional discomfort when a routine is disrupted. A number of supports to assist children with HFA during activity-shifting have been designed to prepare these children before the transition will occur - and to support them during the shift. When shifting techniques are used, children with HFA increase appropriate behavior during shifting, participate more successfully in school and community outings, reduce the amount of time to shift, and rely less on adults for prompting.

Shifting techniques are used to support children with HFA during changes in - or disruptions to tasks, settings, or routines. The strategies can be used before an activity-shift occurs, during an activity-shift, and after an activity-shift – and can be presented verbally, auditorily, or visually. The techniques attempt to increase predictability for children with HFA - and to create positive routines around task-shifting, and they are used across settings to support these young people.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


Task-shifting is a big part of any school day, as they move to different activities or locations. Research has indicated that up to 25% of a school day is spent engaged in transition activities, for example:
  • coming in from the playground
  • gathering needed materials to start working
  • going to the cafeteria
  • moving from classroom to classroom
  • putting personal items in designated locations (e.g., lockers)

Similar requirements for task-shifting are found at home as well, as these kids move from one task to another, attend functions, and join others for meals and activities.

Most children with HFA have problems associated with changes in routine and changes in environments. They have a strong need for “sameness” and predictability. These issues may eventually impede the child’s independence and limit his or her ability to succeed in community settings. A variety of factors related to the disorder contribute to these issues during task-shifting (e.g., problems in understanding the verbal directives or explanations that a teacher, parent, or employer are providing).

When a teacher announces that a task is finished and provides multi-step directions related to upcoming tasks, students with HFA often do not comprehend all of the verbal information. Difficulty sequencing information and recognizing relationships between steps of a task impact the child’s ability to transition as well.

These special needs kids often do not recognize the subtle cues leading up to a transition (e.g., packing up their materials, a teacher wrapping up her lecture, students getting their lunches out of the refrigerator, and so on) -- and may not be prepared when it is time to move. Also, children with HFA often have restrictive patterns of behaviors that are hard to disrupt, thus creating difficulty at times of task-shifting. Lastly, they often have greater anxiety, which can impact behavior during times of unpredictability.

The ongoing task may be more reinforcing to the HFA child than the task he or she is moving to – or a second task may be more demanding or unattractive. The child may not want to start one task or may not want to end another. Also, the attention the child receives during the transition-process may be reinforcing or maintaining the difficult behavior. 

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


Preparation Technique—

Cueing children with HFA before a transition is going to take place is a crucial strategy. In many settings, a simple 3 to 5 word “verbal-cue” can be used to signal an upcoming transition (e.g., “Time for a shower”, “Put your homework away”). This is the most effective way to signal a transition, because lengthy verbal information will not be quickly processed or understood.

NOTE:  Providing the cue immediately before the transition is “suppose” to occur may not be enough time for the child with HFA to shift attention from one task to the next. Allowing time for him or her to prepare for the task-shift, and providing more relevant cues that the youngster can refer to as he/she is getting ready to transition is much more effective. 





Along with developing predictable and consistent task-shifting routines, parents and teachers should also consider adjusting the activities that children on the autism spectrum are transitioning to and from if transition problems continue. Factors such as the length of a task, the difficulty level, and the interest level of the child all may contribute to transition problems.

Likewise, if an area is too crowded, loud, over-stimulating for some reason, these young people may resist transitioning to that location. An assessment of environmental factors that could contribute to transition problems is recommended here.

Furthermore, the sequence of activities should be assessed. Parents and teachers can benefit from reviewing the tasks required of the child throughout the day and categorizing them as (a) preferred, (b) non-preferred, or (c) neutral. If the youngster has difficulty transitioning, you can strategically sequence certain tasks so that he or she moves from non-preferred tasks to preferred tasks -- and from preferred tasks to neutral tasks.

Continually review how transitions impact the child with HFA. Depending on the task, environment, and his or her specific needs and strengths, a variety of transition techniques can be employed. Through the use of such techniques, children on the spectrum can more easily move from one task or location to another – and increase independence.

Several visual strategies used to support children with HFA in preparation for a transition have been researched and will be discussed in later posts (so stay tuned for more tips on this topic).

Click here for Part II of this article...

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