7 Ways to Encourage A Smoother Transition in Young Children with Autism

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a picture of a mom holding their child who is having a tantrum because of a transition


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.


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.


The best way to start thinking about how to support transitions in autism is to plan ahead, be prepared and be consistent.  When the following strategies are implemented and used on a regular basis, it adds some structure and predictability to transitions.  It doesn’t mean that you will never see another meltdown or resistance during transitions, but you should certainly see a reduction in stressed reactions during transitions.  I always like to look at it like this…if I was sitting down reading a really good book and someone came and grabbed the book out of my hand and took it away without warning, I would be pretty upset.  Quite often, this is how our students with autism feel….like we pulled out the rug from underneath them during many transitions throughout the day.  We need to PREPARE our students/children for transitions ahead of time when possible.  When you think about parenting a typically developing child, you might give a verbal warning of “two minutes, then clean up”.  But, for children who aren’t processing auditory input effectively, this cue may be totally meaningless.  That is where visual supports come into play.  Each of the 7 strategies that I will share have a visual component to them.  This is because we know that autistic children tend to be visual learners.  We need to provide the preparation for transitions in a visual and predictable format.  It is also very important to have these visual supports in several places around the classroom or home so they are easily accessible to you. Then, you will be prepared.


Use a first-then board or visual schedule.  A first-then visual support shows children the sequence of what they will be doing.  It can be the starting place, before using a longer visual schedule.  Simply bring the first-then board to your child/student, point to, and say what is on each picture.  This is a great way to prepare them for the upcoming transition.  For example:  if my student is at the table eating a snack and I know we will be transitioning to a 1:1 learning time next, I will have the first-then near them and bring it to their attention a couple of times during snack.  “First snack, then green table”.  A visual schedule will have a longer sequence of activities. Many students start with a “first-then” board and then move on to a visual schedule that shows a sequence of 4-5 activities. Beyond that, many children are able to move to a half-day or full-day visual schedule.


Utilize a transition object.  A transition object is just an object of any kind that can be carried in one hand by a child.  It could be a toy or other favorite object (stuffed animal, matchbox car, brush, etc…).  The student may have a favorite little toy that they bring to school, or it can be something from school.  They could use the same transition object all day long, or you could offer something different for each transition that you anticipate could be difficult or stressful.  Simply show your student the picture of what is next, and hold out the transition object for them to hold as they make that transition.  Transition objects can reduce stress and anxiety, as well as shift the child’s attention from the activity they were doing.
transition objects can help encourage smoother transitions for children with autism
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!
child lying on the floor during a transition


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.


Make and use an all-done bucket.  The all-done bucket is a magical strategy!  Once a child learns how to use it, it can help SO much!  When it is time to be all done with a toy or an activity, bring the all-done bucket to your child or student and help them put the object in the container.  This works with toys, tablets, playdough, crayons…almost anything!  After you have facilitated the use of this consistently, all you will need to do is put the all-done bucket in front of your student and they automatically place the object into it.  I’ve seen it work over and over again.  The key is to introduce it and use it consistently so that it becomes a predictable routine.  The use of an all-done bucket has greatly reduced stress over being “all done” with certain items with my students.


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.
Click here to grab a free set of visual supports that include the visuals for a first-then board, all done bucket, star chart, and wait mat!
Click here to watch the free FB Live mini-training on the topic of encouraging smoother transitions in young children with autism.
If you haven’t checked out these resources from Autism Little Learners yet, you definitely should! They will help your child or students with communication and self-regulation skills:
If you haven’t grabbed up my FREE “Ultimate Guide For Targeting Language Skills In Young Children With Autism”, sign up to receive it now!  This jam-packed guide will help you identify where to start with your student or child’s language skills!


If you found this blog post helpful, you may also like these blog topics from Autism Little Learners:
Click here to watch the Facebook Live Mini-Training titled “7 Ways To Encourage Smoother Transitions In Young Children With Autism”.
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Click here to read the blog post titled, “Reframing Echolalia In Autism:  It’s Not A Bad Thing!”

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