by Kris Turman | 4:33 pm

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).

Shifting Gears

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!

Sensory Processing

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.

Environmental Cues

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.

Receptive Language

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.

Tricky Situations

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!








Thanks for writing this article to raise awareness on Autism. Adults and children who are not Autistic who are not educated about Autism may not realize how difficult it is for an Autistic child to make a transition. We tend to take these things for granted. I can only imagine how difficult it is for an Autistic child in this world. Do you know someone who is Autistic? Is that how you know so much about this topic?

Jun 23.2017 | 02:30 pm

    Kris Turman

    Transitions are very tough for individuals with autism!  And yes, I do happen to know someone with autism!   14 years ago we took in my late husband’s grandson from a previous marriage and he was diagnosed with autism after he came to live with us.   We adopted him, so I have 14 years of parenting autism under my belt!    It can be very overwhelming at times, but I would not trade it for anything — seeing the world through my son’s perspective has changed how I look at the world!  I created this website so that others who are parenting autism will know that they are not alone!

    Jun 23.2017 | 03:17 pm


Hi Kris,

I am so grateful for having stumbled upon your website. I don’t have a child who suffers from autism, but my neighbor does. Thanks for shedding some light on what she’s going through.
Sometimes out of nowhere I will hear her son, Charlie, scream.
Looking back, I now understand that Charlie’s tantrum didn’t come out of the blue. Often the reason he got upset was because something he enjoyed doing, like watching TV, was interrupted perhaps by some sudden trip that his mom had to make–which meant Charlie had to come with her.

You have made me better understand how a change in routine effects those suffering from autism.

Jun 23.2017 | 02:40 pm

    Kris Turman

    I am so happy that I could shed some light on those situations for you!   It is definitely not an easy thing to go through as either a parent or the one with the autism.   And most people just assume that the child is not disciplined or used to getting their way!   

    Thank you for taking the time to stop in at my site — maybe you could share my site with Charlie’s mother!  I know that it always made me feel better to find someone else who understood what I was going through!    

    Jun 23.2017 | 03:11 pm

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