From the time he came into our lives, Devin has struggled with transitions. With the help of his behavioral therapist and the staff members at his school, we found a number of ways to help him deal with transitions although he does still struggle with this issue 14 years later!
Breaking the transition into steps
One of our biggest transition schedules was from evening play time to going to bed. So we broke the transition into steps. We made sure that Devin knew that he was going to play until a designated time, which would be bedtime. We also made certain that Devin had a couple of warnings that play time was going to end, usually about 10 minutes before bedtime and again at 5 minutes before. When playtime was over, we had him put his toys away so that they were not tempting him once he got into bed. We also established a routine of brushing our teeth, giving hugs to family members and then one of us sitting with him for a few minutes after he got into bed.
Letting him know that change can be a good thing
We determined two activities that Devin enjoyed and practiced switching from one to the other, so that he could see that transitions were not always bad. Devin loved building with blocks and playing with his Hot Wheel cars. So we would get both toys out and switch between the two of them. This made a transition that was rewarding as well as stress-free and he was able to focus on learning cues.
We found that the easiest way for Devin to deal with transitions was to be prepared by telling him what was going to happen ahead of time. Yes, this meant making a habit of looking at and planning the next day, week and month to try to identify transitions ahead of time.
Blurring the lines
Sometimes people feel like a transition is threatening because it is an obvious or big change. If you can find ways to blur the lines between the activities, the threat does not seem as bad because the steps to the change are smaller and less obvious. Some examples would be going from no coat and cool clothes in the summertime to slightly warmer clothes and gradually working your way up to warm clothes for the winter weather. Many times in the mornings we would let him bring a small toy to the kitchen table until his breakfast was ready — when the plate or bowl was placed on the table, the toy was placed back in his bedroom.
Visual schedules help many children with autism deal with any type of change. The schedule lists the activities of the day either in picture or words and the child knows what to expect, when things are going to happen and has advance warning of transition times. Devin has used schedules throughout all of his years at school.
Using a visual schedule also helps the child to know that an activity is over. You can pull that activity from the schedule and put it in a “done” basket or have a photo of what a project should look like when it is done.
Give the child plenty of warning that a change is coming by using signals that are clear, obvious and unique for that particular transition. With Devin, his teachers would sing a short little song when free play was over and it was time to put things away. As he got older, his teacher would walk past his desk shortly before lunch and hold up fingers to indicate how many minutes until lunch and then make an “eating” face to let him know what was going to happen.
Verbal prompts should be be avoided, as auditory processing in not a strong area for most students with autism. Using visual or physical prompts is a much better option.
Using timers turns time into a visual concept and helps to signal that a transition is approaching. Children with autism tend to do best with timers that show time passing in a concrete manner, such as a visual timer where time can easily be seen disappearing.
It seems like we constantly were setting timers at our house for Devin. At bathtime, once Devin was shampooed and clean he loved to play in the water — once we started setting a timer for 10 minutes of playtime, the transition of getting out of the tub was not nearly as much of a struggle. We would also set a timer by the computer when he had computer time; before long, he had his computer games shut down before the timer went off rather than us struggling to convince him that his time was up!
Defining physical areas and boundaries
Making sure that Devin knew what areas he was allowed to be in or supposed to be in was a challenge because he would always get distracted by something and wander to it. At school, his teachers would put a blue star on his desk in the classroom — if he started to wander somewhere else when he was supposed to be at his desk, the teacher would simply say, “Devin, can you find the blue star?” In our yard, we had a sidewalk in the backyard and Devin knew that he could play anywhere between that sidewalk and the neighbor’s fence. In the front yard, we had a sidewalk that ran the length of our block and he knew that he could not go on or past that sidewalk.
Children need to understand concepts such as now, later, first, then, after and next before they can start to understand transitioning. You can incorporate these words into every day examples to make them understand these words, such as the following examples:
- You can have a cookie after you eat your lunch.
- You can have a snack after you wash your hands.
- Let’s line up these crayons …red is first, blue is second and green is last.
- First I will shoot a basket and then you can shoot a basket.
- Now we are taking a bath, then we will watch cartoons.
Use examples of time that he/she can relate to
Instead of telling a child that something will happen at 1:30, try to phrase it with examples that he can relate to. If the child likes to watch a particular cartoon on TV, talk about how long an episode takes or if they like video games, talk about their best time on their favorite game. Or time them doing things like eating a sandwich or riding their bike to the end of the block and back. Then when a transition is approaching, you can give them an idea of how long it will be by using one of those examples.
Social stories were my best friend when Devin was younger. We used social stories primarily when we knew that he would be transitioning from something familiar to something new. We would either use a book to read about the new activity (such as going to the dentist) or make a storyboard about it if we did not have a book available. In the story we would explain when the change would happen, how he would know that the old activity was about to end and what the new activity would be.
Some examples where we used social stories included starting to ride the bus to school and back home, when our daughter moved away to college, preparing for visits from people he had not met before and getting a puppy.
Minimize the number of transitions
It is impossible to avoid transitions completely because they are a part of life. But any time that you can minimize the number of transitions for a child with autism, you are also minimizing their stress level and making things much easier for both them and yourself.
I am sure that you have learned many ways to help your child deal with transitions — I would love to hear about them so that I can learn from you and so can my other readers! Please leave a comment below with what has been effective for you!