Ease Transitions: Why Do Students with Autism Have Such a Difficult Time?

Let’s talk about transitions and autism. 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 on this day to be a 10. Without warning, I abruptly come up to you and say “all done beach, time to load heavy boxes in a truck.” You would most likely not like this at all and might start displaying problem behaviors in the form of arguing, stomping your feet, and slamming your chair onto the sand. You might even refuse to leave your preferred activity 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.

Why do Students with Autism Have Such a Difficult Time with Transitions?

The key is to ease transitions by not asking a child to transition from a 10 (a highly preferred activity) to a 2 (work) constantly throughout their day.

Ready to apply these autism transition strategies and help your child or client(s) go through smoother transitions?

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Below are five tips and techniques to help ease transitions.

1) Dangle the carrot (the reinforcement) before problem behavior occurs. In the beach example above, if I would have come up to you and offered you $50 to help me load 5 heavy boxes in the truck that would have been fine but waiting to offer cash until you start stomping your feet and refusing to move is a very bad idea. Remember any behavior that is reinforced will maintain or go up. Propose the reinforcement before you place the demand to transition not after problem behavior occurs.

2) Don’t physically move a student from one location to another (even if they are small enough to carry or move).  I wouldn’t even think about physically dragging you off the beach to help me load heavy boxes as this could lead to me getting arrested for assault. It disturbs me that some people try to physically move students with autism from one activity to the next. If you try to prompt the child to move and he or she resists with equal but opposite pressure, this is considered a physical restraint. If you are currently using too much physical guidance for transitions, you need to stop and implement some other appropriate interventions.

3) Whenever possible, give choices. 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 the great book you were reading. We make a lot of choices throughout the day, especially when we are faced with difficult or unpleasant tasks. We need to give our students with autism as many choices as possible to ease transitions.

4) Sandwich harder activities between two preferred activities and consider using schedules and timers. Some students benefit from visual schedules and the use of timers to indicate that one activity is over and a new one is beginning. The use of a “promise” reinforcer is also successful for many students. A promise reinforcer is used when it is time to transition to a less preferred area. The child is approached with a favorite toy or a small edible reinforcer and this is used as the “carrot” and a visual reminder that reinforcement is available for a smooth transition. Some students need several small edible reinforcers on the way to a less preferred area. It is also important that all the hard activities are spread out throughout the day and placed in between reinforcing activities. In the beach example, if you knew that you would be at the beach from 1 to 4 pm then you would spend 10 minutes helping to load boxes in a truck followed by going home for pizza, the task of loading boxes would not have been such a big deal.

5) Make sure all “work” stations are paired with reinforcement and avoid the word work whenever you can. Some of the best classrooms and home programs I have seen have strong reinforcers at every “work” area. Each area has some electronic device (a computer, DVD player, or music box) as well as a separate box of toys and items kept on top of a rolling cart that can go with the student and his instructional materials to each area. I often tell professionals and parents to avoid the word “work” for students who have difficulty with transitions and to spend a few minutes at the beginning of each session pairing yourself and the materials with reinforcement. If students are not running towards the next activity or at least moving there without problem behavior, your demands are too high and/or your reinforcement is too low.

Ready to apply these autism transition strategies and help your child or client(s) go through smoother transitions?