Autism Transition Strategies: 5 Steps to Smoother Transitions

You might be wondering why children with autism have such a hard time transitioning from one activity to another. So I’m here to tell you that we all have trouble with transitions. I’ll be providing you with some autism transition strategies to help your child or clients with autism.

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Transitioning from Highly Preferred Activities to Non-Preferred Activities

Imagine you are at the beach on a beautiful sunny day having a cold drink and reading a great book. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most reinforcing activity, you would probably rate being at the beach a 10.

Now imagine that, without warning, I abruptly come up to you and say that beach time is over. It’s time to load heavy boxes in the truck. You would probably not like this at all. And you might start displaying problem behaviors in the form of arguing, stomping your feet, or slamming your chair onto the sand. You might even refuse to leave the beach and literally dig your heels into the sand. What I want to illustrate is that we all have problems with transitioning from high preferred to low preferred activities.

The key to ease transitions is not asking a child to transition from a highly preferred activity to work constantly throughout their day.

5 Autism Transition Strategies to Use with Your Child or Clients

  1. Before the problem behavior occurs, dangle a carrot (the reinforcement). My son, Lucas, loved to be in the ocean for hours when he was little. I needed to offer him something really powerful like pizza to get him to come out of the ocean. Always remember to offer the reinforcement before you place the demand to transition. Not after problem behavior occurs. So in this case I said, ”Lucas time for pizza. Let’s get out and dry off.”
  2. Don’t physically move a student from one location to another (even if they are small enough to carry.) I wouldn’t even think about physically dragging you off the beach to help me load heavy boxes. So it disturbs me that some people try to physically move children with autism from one activity to the next.
  3. Whenever possible, give choices. For instance, in the beach example, if I would have come up and stated that I needed help with some heavy boxes and asked you when would be a good time for you to transition, you would probably have been a lot more cooperative. You may have suggested that we load the boxes when you finished your drink or after you finished a chapter in your book. We make a lot of choices throughout the day, especially when we are faced with difficult or unpleasant tasks. We need to give our child or clients with autism as many choices as possible to ease transitions.
  4. Sandwich harder activities between two preferred activities and consider using visual schedules and timers. 
  5. Pair all work stations with reinforcement. Some of the best classrooms and home programs I have seen have strong reinforcers at every “work” area. I often tell professionals and parents to avoid the word “work” for students who have difficulty with transitions. I also recommend spending a few minutes at the beginning of each session pairing yourself and the materials with reinforcement. If students are not moving towards the next activity without problem behavior, your demands are probably too high or your reinforcement is too low.
Ready to apply these autism transition strategies and help your child or client(s) go through smoother transitions?
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