Transitions can cause a lot of stress for someone with autism — and stress for the individual with autism causes extra stress for parents. Let’s take a look at this big stress factor!
Transitions — What are they?
A transition is a change. This can be a change of location, activity, season or many other things. Most people go through hundreds of transitions in a single day and do not even think about it! Sometimes these transitions are part of our daily routine; other times, they are due to interruptions or other events that we are not planning on.
For example, let’s say that you are in the kitchen preparing your evening meal. You are concentrating on preparing the food that you are going to eat when your cell phone, which is in the living room, rings. A transition is made as you take your focus off what you are doing in the kitchen and walk into the living room to pick up your phone. The thoughts going through your mind change from the recipe you had been preparing to answering your phone and talking to the person on the other end. You might return to the kitchen to work on your meal as you are talking to the person on the phone, but a transition has taken place!
Sometimes such a transition can be frustrating because it interrupts what you were doing, and suddenly you have two sets of thoughts going through your mind at the same time — paying attention to the person on the phone and thinking about where you were with the food you were preparing. You might miss something that the person says to you because you are thinking about the next step of the recipe or vice versa!
Now, put yourself in the shoes of a person with autism — as we have mentioned before, someone with autism has problems processing the world around them to begin with. Let’s say that your son with autism loves to watch a particular cartoon — while that cartoon is on, you tell him that he has to get ready to go to the grocery store with you. You are telling him that he has to leave a preferred activity (the cartoon) to do something that he does not like to do (grocery shopping).
Making a transition requires shifting gears and placing your attention on the task or place that you are transitioning to. Most of us do this so often that we do not stop to think about it, but the attention that we are paying to the current activity has to stop and we have to instead start paying attention to the new activity.
Individuals with autism often have hyperfocus, sensory overload and distractability to overcome when making transitions. If the transition requires them to follow sequences or know the steps to a particular task, they may become confused and the confusion can lead to anxiety. And any of these can possibly lead to a meltdown!
Children who have sensory processing issues especially struggle with transitions. Each transition brings with it new sensory information, which has to be processed by the child. Waking up in the morning, eating in a restaurant instead of the normal setting at home, or going to visit someone can be very frightening and uncomfortable.
When a child with autism makes a transition, it can take time for their body to adjust to the new sensations enough for them to cope with the new surroundings or to tune it out and focus on other things. If you live somewhere that has cold winters, it might take awhile for the child to adjust to being able to wear lighter weight clothing as the weather warms up after being bundled up all winter. Or if the child is in a different room at school than usual, they might seem to shut down because they are anxious or frightened about being in a different setting.
Have you ever been sitting in a class or in church when suddenly you realize that you must have been daydreaming because the people around you start stirring and you have no idea why? You look around and see that people are reaching for their books or hymnals, and realize what you are supposed to be doing because everyone else is doing it. This is called an environmental cue — you are able to figure out what is happening because of what is going on around you. Children with autism often miss these cues that signal a transition, such as everyone putting their papers away to go home at the end of the school day.
Individuals with autism use things around them as a way of coping; when the environment changes (such as redecorating a room and moving the furniture), the environmental cues that they have been using are no longer there so they have trouble understanding what is happening.
One things that remains the same is that every transition has a beginning and an end. In order for the transition to be successful, one must clearly understand how to get from the beginning to the end. The means of reaching the end also must be consistent and mutually agreed upon. If the child with autism does not understand the people who are directing them, the transition will be difficult because it does not make sense (for example, telling the child that movie time is over if the movie has not finished playing yet).
Routines, Obsessions and Compulsions
Many times transitions are difficult for children with autism due to things like routines, obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions occur when a child with autism latches onto certain things or thoughts. When they are playing with that toy or are lost in their obsessive thoughts, it might be very difficult for them to leave that or to even hear what someone else is saying to them.
Compulsions might also make it hard for the person with autism to move on. They might want to complete the task that they are working on. Sometimes it might not be evident to anyone else that they are working on a task, as they might just be completing that task in their mind.
Changes in routines — whether established by others or themselves — may also make it hard to move on to something else. They might know exactly how they are supposed to do what they are working on, when suddenly someone tells them that they need to go to a different classroom for something that they are not familiar with. The child may not understand why their routine is changing and may be scared of what is taking place because it is not their normal task or location.
While many transitions are predictable, for a child with autism they can very challenging. My next post will talk about some methods that I have found helpful over the years in making transitions easier for a child with autism.
I am interested in hearing what types of transitions your child struggles with. Please leave me a message in the comments section located below this post!