Simple Transition Strategies for Autistic Kids

Transition Strategies for Autistic Children

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You know that saying, you will have to take me out of here kicking and screaming? I’m more than positive that it was a mom of young kids who turned that phrase. As parents we have all been there, standing next to a child who is throwing a massive fit when it comes time to leave and stop doing something they are enjoying.

Transition Strategies for Autistic Children

For special needs parents, these fits during transition times throughout the day can be more frequent. From something as common as time to leave the park to simple day to day activities such as time to go eat dinner. While these transition strategies are written with special needs kids in mind, these simple tricks can help all kids make it through their daily schedule changes smoothly.

What is a Transition?

A transition is a disruption to an activity, location, or routine that require children to adapt. Transitions are predictable daily changes instead of unexpected schedule changes that aren’t as well defined.

Why Are Transitions Difficult for Autistic Kids?

Attention Shifts:

Attention belongs to a set of thinking skills called executive functions. This mental skill covers abilities such as emotional regulation, inhibition, task planning, initiation, organization, and self-monitoring. For a lot of Autistic kids, the ability to shift freely from one activity to another requires a level of flexible thinking that is difficult

Autistic kids can struggle with:

  • Disengaging from the current task
  • Switching attention to the new task
  • Re-engaging attention on to the new task

Factors such as hyperfocus, Sensory overload, following sequences, and understanding how steps relate all play a part in the difficulty of turning off attention from one task and transitioning to the next.

Receptive Language and Environmental Cues:

For children who struggle to pick up body language or other nonverbal cues predicting that a change is coming up is difficult. Add in difficulty understanding spoken social language and you have a whole lot of room for miscommunication and misunderstanding. A transition always includes a starting and a finishing point, and for Autistic children, this, as well as the environment, needs to be clearly communicated in a way that is predictable and consistent.

Sensory Needs:

Going from one environment to the next, or even just switching tasks, requires the body to take in new sensory information. For some kids, this can cause them to become overstimulated or understimulated, both of which can lead to behaviors.

Transition Strategies for Autistic Kids

1. Be Clear on How Long the Activity will Last. A transition always includes a starting and a finishing point. By clearly defining that ending point you are helping your child feel some control over their environment. A visual timer is an awesome tool to help your child see exactly when the activity will end. We love using the Time Tracker because it provides both visual and audio cues to alert to the time remaining.

However you do it, give the child a lot of warnings for how long there is left to participate in the activity.

2. What’s Coming Next? Visual Schedules are an awesome way to clearly communicate what is happening next. If your child can see what is coming up they can prepare instead of feeling like they are being abrubtly pulled from whatever they are engaged in. We absolutely love this free printable Daily Routine Picture Schedule from Kori at Home.

3. Consider Preferred Activities. When creating your child’s schedule strongly consider the activities that your child loves and those activities they don’t much care for.

When it comes to transitions, moving from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity can be particularly tough. No one likes having to stop something they are enjoying to go do something that they hate. If at all possible when designing your child’s routine attempt to move in a pattern of non-preferred activities to preferred activities, preferred activities to neutral activities, and neutral activities to non-preferred activities. While this will not cut out all the transition difficulties it will help smooth some of them over.

4. Use First/Then Visual Supports. If your child is still struggling with transitions while using a structured routine and visual schedule, breaking their visuals further down into a “First…Then” chart may prove to be beneficial for them. A First/Then Chart is a way of showing a child that they must complete the task at hand before moving on to their preferred activity. The one that we use in our home along with 70 PECS is available in our shop.

5. Use a Transition Object or Toy. When it comes to transitioning between environments, sometimes bringing a familiar lovey or favorite toy with can help ease some of the “new environment” stress. For my daughter, this object is a book. She adores reading and having a book available to her during transitions helps distract her from her negative thoughts while easing the anxiety of having to wait.

6. Minimize Waiting. Waiting sucks. It’s boring, miserable, and just all around sucky. Even as adults if we have to wait too long we tend to get impatient and sometimes aggressive. And well, for a little kid it’s a little harder and that much more confusing (especially if it isn’t clear on how long the wait is going to last). Prepare for long breaks by bringing a transition object (see #5), fidgets, or even some fun brain break cards. Whatever you can do to make that wait time a little less painful.

6. Use Sensory Breaks. Going from one environment to the next or even just switching tasks requires the body to take in new sensory information. Quick and easy sensory breaks are a fantastic way to help your child adjust. Need some ideas? We love this free printable list of Simple Sensory Break Ideas from Lemon Lime Adventures.

7. Use the Art of Distraction. Kids love to play and just like you would use a sensory break, take a play distraction if your child is struggling with a transition. Turn the floor into lava or play a game of “Don’t Step on the Cracks”…I don’t know about y’all but my mom was the Master at whipping these games out when I was a child and taking one from her parenting handbook has been incredibly useful for helping my kids with transitions.

8. Keep It Consistent. From daily routines to ending an activity, keep what you do as consistent as possible. This isn’t to say that you have to do the exact same thing every single day, but if you can develop some consistency in what your family does you will be helping your child understand what to expect while minimizing that room for miscommunication.

9. Prepare Ahead of Time and Don’t Rush. If you know that your child is going to struggle with a transition, make as many preparations as you can ahead of time and give both of y’all as much time as you need. Rushing will just add to the stress for both of you.

10. Practice Makes Perfect. The more familiar something is, the less scary it is. Social stories are a fantastic way to introduce and practice new concepts in a non-threatening way. To learn how to write a social story check out our favorite social story resource from And Next Comes L.

Additional Autism Resources

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Transition Strategies for Autistic Children

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