Do you want to facilitate a smoother transition for your child or student with autism? I’m sure you have wondered why transition breakdowns occur so often and how you can help! These 7 strategies can help make transitions smoother for your little ones with autism. First things first. As an educator or therapist, it is imperative to start by building a positive relationship with your student. If you don’t have a positive relationship, helping a child do hard things (like transition) is going to be even more challenging. Next up, what is a transition? A transition can look like: a child moving between activities, moving between different areas in the classroom, or between different areas in or out of the building. Sometimes the breakdown in the transition occurs when it is a move from a highly motivating activity to a less preferred activity. Sometimes the transition might break down when a child doesn’t understand where they are going. At home, transitions can include: waking up in the morning, getting dressed, having to be done playing with certain toys, leaving the house to go to school, and getting ready for bed. Fostering a smoother transition requires some special techniques, consistency, and patience.
WHY ARE TRANSITIONS HARD FOR LITTLE ONES WITH AUTISM?
Transitions and change can be difficult for ALL children (and adults!). But, for autistic children who have the tendency to become very engaged in the activity that they are doing, transitions can trigger meltdowns. It can be hard to “switch gears”, especially when they thrive on consistency and routine. When autistic children are forced to switch gears without support, it can cause extreme stress and anxiety. Our job is to figure out how to prepare children for a smoother transition. We can help make transitions more predictable and routine-based. Some of the visual supports included in these tips can be found at no cost here.
SUPPORTING TRANSITIONS IN CHILDREN WITH AUTISM
TRANSITIONS AND AUTISM STRATEGY #1:
TRANSITIONS AND AUTISM STRATEGY #2:
Use a wait mat. What do you do when your student is carrying a transition object, but it is getting in the way of paying attention during a 1:1 learning session? Using a “wait mat” can provide a structure/system and create a routine around letting go of the object during learning time. This is different from the all-done bucket (strategy #6) because the child doesn’t have to be all done holding the object. Instead, it is just a short break from holding it. Simply set the object on the wait mat and let the toy “watch” your student do his or her work. Once they are done, they can have the object back again!
Give some wait time. Why are we always in such a hurry? I know, I know … in the classroom, you have some pressure to keep the schedule moving along. However, if your student has dropped to the floor and isn’t moving to the next activity or place, sometimes the best approach is to wait. Let them have their moment to be upset, regroup, and calm down. This is a great time for you to brainstorm what other strategy might help redirect them to thinking about something else. Sometimes they just need a hug. Sometimes they just need some quiet. There is no harm in just waiting them out for a while and moving on when they are ready. This is a very under-utilized strategy!
TRANSITIONS AND AUTISM STRATEGY #5:
Use a timer. As an activity is coming to an end, it can be very helpful to use a timer to signal that it is finished, thus time to transition. This can help provide that consistency and predictability for students, which leads to a smoother transition A beep from an inexpensive kitchen timer works great (unless your student exhibits sensory defensiveness and the sound is too much for them). Usually, the kitchen timer works well because the beeping provides that cue to help the student shift their focus. You can use a visual timer if that is what works best for the child.
TRANSITIONS AND AUTISM STRATEGY #6:
TRANSITIONS AND AUTISM STRATEGY #7:
Use a star chart. This star chart is used to count down time. It is NOT a chart to “earn” or “lose” stars. Using a star chart is a form of duration mapping. It provides a visual way to countdown time to something. I use this every day on the playground and during our gym class when we have free time. This is how it works: take all of the stars off, and place the picture of what is next at the end of the chart (this could be a “check” to indicate “check schedule”, or it could be a picture of the activity that comes next). Then, as time goes on, my staff and I walk around and show our students, “one star….four more then ____” as we place a star on the chart. The nice thing about counting down time with the star chart is that we can make it go as slow or fast as we want to. We aren’t bound to a timer with an exact number of minutes. This comes in handy when a student is showing signs of stress and we need to end the activity on a positive note. We can hurry up and put the stars on and move to the next activity. The opposite is also true. If everything is going smoothly, we can extend the activity by putting the stars on more slowly. Continue putting the stars on and showing all of your students when each new star is on the chart. With repetition and consistency, they will start to understand what this means and it will better prepare them for the transition when it is time to shift gears. I LOVE this strategy!
As you may have guessed, many of these strategies can be used in tandem when supporting transitions in your students with autism. For example: If I am working 1:1 with a student, I show them the first-then board. First learning time, then toy cars. Once they finish their work, I say “learning time is done, time for cars!”, as I refer to the first-then board again. After a few minutes, I set the timer for 2 minutes and say “two minutes, then check schedule”. Once the timer beeps, I offer the all-done bucket for them to put the cars in and hand them a picture of a “check” to go check their schedule.
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