Tantrum-Free Transitions for Children on the Autism Spectrum

"How can I make transitions easier for my child (high functioning autistic) in order to avoid his transition-related meltdowns?"

Young people with High Functioning Autism (HFA) usually live in the moment and have difficulty moving from one activity to the next. Stopping an activity in mid-drift interrupts their train of thought, which pushes them out of their comfort zone. 
As parents, we are often thinking of what we must do next, or even what happened in the recent past. While it may be easy for us to switch to the next activity, and while we know why a particular switch must occur, kids on the autism spectrum do not think this way. We, as parents, need to think like our “special needs” children.

Transitions happen every day in your youngster’s world. Waking up in the morning, going to school, coming to meals, leaving for an activity, saying goodbye to a friend, and getting ready for bed are all examples of transitions that can cause an HFA youngster anxiety – or worse! And then there are those larger transitions: starting a new school or day care, moving to a new house, losing a loved one, etc. – all of which really take a toll on the youngster’s emotions.

Since each transition is different, and since they happen so frequently, it’s helpful to use a variety of strategies. Moms and dads who provide empathy and support, help their HFA youngster gain a sense of control, create rituals that provide predictability, and teach their youngster ways to cope with change will find far greater success. 

Listed below are some important techniques that will help make transitions easier for your youngster:

1. Allow your youngster enough time to transition. Whether you are preparing for a short-term transition from play-time to meal-time, or you have just told your child that the family is planning a trip to Disneyland next month, remember that HFA children process change in their own time; they need time to “grow through” the change depending on how drastic that change is going to be. When planning activities, add in extra time for transitions that is proportionate to the degree of change. For example, if you are experiencing a major life change such as birth, death, divorce, or a move, plan to allow your youngster a few months or more to really adjust to this new experience.

2. Create a list of “house rules” and review them with your child periodically. The rules should include what to do during specific transitions (e.g., how to move from playing video games to getting dressed for Karate class). Post the rules where your child can see them. He or she will become accustomed to the rules, and understand what to do and what to expect throughout the day.

3. Develop a set of rituals, for example: (a) a “chit-chat” ritual at bedtime (e.g., ask your youngster about the happy, sad, scary and frustrating parts to his or her day; (b) a goodbye ritual (e.g., develop a secret handshake with your youngster that’s used only when he or she leaves you; (c) an after-school ritual (e.g., let your youngster have a snack and play outside for 30 minutes before starting homework); (d) an end-of-the-week ritual (e.g., have a “family night” every Saturday to reconnect and unwind after a busy week).

4. Give your child a notice when transitions are approaching. A simple, "In 10 minutes, we are sitting at the dinner table," is enough to give him a little warning. This lets your child know he should be finishing up what he is working on and allows him the chance to wash his hands, find his place at the table, and ease into a new state of mind.

5. Give your child something to look forward to before initiating a transition. For example, if you’re leaving the park to return home, talk about the fantastic things your child can do when he or she gets home.

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

6. Look for natural transitions or breaks that may make it easier to leave or move on. It’s better to end peacefully after 37 minutes than trying to end during a meltdown after 2 hours. Also, keep in mind that transitions, like any other step in your day, will be exacerbated by lack of sleep, hunger, or illness.

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

8. Sing “transition songs” prior to or during transitions. You can find these songs in many children’s book stores, and there are songs for almost any transition (e.g., “Wash Our Hands,” “Going Shopping,” “Time for Bed”). Alternatively, you can make up your own songs (e.g., use a familiar tune like “Row Row Row Your Boat,” and then add your own lyrics).

9. Take one of your child’s special items (e.g., a doll) with you to help make the transition easier for her – anything that makes her feel safe so that it’s easier to shift the focus away from anxiety to something she loves to think about.

10. Talk to your youngster 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.”

11. Transitions offer families an opportunity to grow together through difficulty or challenge by finding new ways to cope and manage life. Allow some time to brainstorm alternatives if, for example, a switch from the car to the church doesn’t go well, or a move to a new school is failing miserably. Be open to alternatives you haven’t thought of before.

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

13. When attempting a transition, keep the focus on the fun your child 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”).

14. Young people with HFA handle change differently. Some can sail from one activity to another, while others have a hard time and fight even a little change. Talk with an autism specialist who can assist you and make the journey more pleasant for the whole family.

15. Remember, even though your youngster may put up a fight, you are the one setting the rules and limits. For example, if it’s time to leave the playground, it’s time to leave the playground. And luckily (at least for a little while) you are bigger than your child is and can scoop him up under your arms when all else fails!

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 parents can help their kids through these transitions.

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

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