• Christopher Lynch

Making Transitions Smoother for Children on the Autism Spectrum

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

Moving from One Situation to Another Can Cause Anxiety for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

If you are the parent of any child or a teacher you know how difficult it can be to get a child to make a transition from one task to another. Simple directions like:

“Come on, get your shoes on it’s time to go.”


“Time to get your materials out and start your work.”

may need to be repeated with emphasis before a child actually does what is being requested. This can create frustration for all involved.

With children on the Autism spectrum, transitions can be even more challenging. With autism, transitions may not only be an annoyance but may cause significant distress and anxiety.

Why are Transitions So Difficult for Kids with Autism?

Kids on the autism spectrum can become very intensely engaged in what they are doing or thinking about. This can be a great strength but can also make it difficult when the child is required to stop one task and move on to another. In addition, with autism, there are often challenges with the neuropsychological process know as the Executive Function. The Executive Function helps the brain to shift and reallocate attention and other brain resources when required.

5 Ways to Make Transitions Smoother for Kids with Autism

1) Give advance notice before a transition is going to occur.

Announcing that its time to switch gears without any notice can be quite distressful for a child on the spectrum. Advance notice helps the brain to get ready to shift to another task thereby relieving anxiety.

Special note on video games: Providing a time limit on video game playing often backfires. You can say "10 Minutes and it's time to get off" but when 10 minutes rolls around your child may be at a critical juncture in the game (about to achieve some type of reward or nearing the end of a game). Instead: agree on when the video game should go off based on the task of the game. For example, it may be more effective to say, "One more game and then it's time to get ready" or "When you get to the next point when you can save your progress then it's time to go"

2) Use visual supports such as visual timers or pictures of the upcoming task.

Time can be an abstract concept so it often helps to visually represent time. You can use a simple egg timer or there are a number higher tech visual timers such as visual clocks on phone apps. Sometimes just showing the child a picture of what's coming up next can help to relieve anxiety.

3) Use structure and consistency.

Keep materials for upcoming tasks in an easily identifiable and consistent place. And keep the general order of tasks consistent so that transitions become more automatic.

4) Use reduced language

Use a few keywords when asking a child to make a transition. Verbal overload will only increase anxiety and can make the transition take even longer to occur.

Example of too lengthy directive:

"Come on get your socks and shoes on because we are going over to Auntie Mary's for your cousin's birthday party and don't forget what happened last time when we were late and they started without us and we didn't get any cake"

Example of *Reduced language:

"Socks and shoes on"

*note you do not want to talk to your child or student like this all of the time-only when you need to get a point across clearly.

Reduced language clarifies expectations without providing the brain with information that is not immediately relevant to what needs to be done.

5) Provide light praise for good transitions

Gently point out when the child has made a good transition and briefly point out why that is a positive.

Example: "That was great that you got ready right away now you’ll have more time to spend doing what you like when we get back from the store".

Hope you find these tips useful. I've included a Printable Tip Sheet:

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