Transitions can be difficult for any young child but for autistic children, they can be especially challenging at times.
During both the school day and daily life, there are so many transitions that a lot of us probably don’t even think about because it comes so natural to us to just move on to the next activity.
Imagine an autistic person’s mind like a busy control room with multiple screens showing different channels simultaneously. Each screen represents various thoughts, feelings and sensory information constantly streaming in. When it’s time to transition, it’s like trying to switch channels or manage the screens while they’re all playing at full volume—it can be really overwhelming.
As special education teachers, it’s our job to help minimize these transitions as feeling too overwhelming for students by putting some transition strategies in place in our autism classroom.
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Why Are Transitions Difficult for Autistic Students?
Autistic individuals have a number of unique needs and some of these unique needs can make transitions more difficult. A transition is simply defined as a change from one thing to the next. In our school world, think of all the changes students are expected to do every single day. Hang your backpack up, time for morning work, go to recess, head to PE, time to read, lunchtime in the noisy cafeteria, walk to the bathroom….the list goes on and on. There is a lot expected of kids at school. In addition, students on the Autism Spectrum are known for the following things:
Sensory Processing Issues
Autistic individuals can easily have sensory overload due to all of the noises of a school building: the shuffling in the hallways, the bells ringing between classes, the surprise fire drills.
Some autistic students are nonspeaking or have limited verbal communication skills. This tends to make for greater difficulty in sometimes understanding what is intended of them. This is another reason that using visual supports is extremely important and beneficial.
Need for Daily Routine & Structure
Students in an autism classroom absolutely have a need for a daily schedule that is consistent. They thrive off of routine.
Lack of Executive Function Skills
Executive function skills are those skills which are necessary for planning, organizing and completing tasks. Transitions often require these skills, as the child needs to be able to plan and organize their thoughts and actions in order to successfully transition from one activity to the next.
Try These 5 Transition Strategies to Make the Transition Process Easier in Your Autism Classroom:
Unfortunately there is not always going to be a “one size fits all” completely effective strategy when we are discussing transitions, especially with the neurodiverse population. However, we can have some effective tools in our back pocket to offer a number of supports so that transitions are not a hard time of the day.
Sometimes a simple verbal cue, “It’s time for PE” will work. But on other days, sometimes the transition tools below are needed! Let’s look at 5 transition strategies to add to your tool belt when working with the autism population.
1. Always Follow a Daily Visual Schedule
Let’s talk about the HUGE use of visual supports that is needed to effectively run an autism classroom. Visual schedules are by far going to be the number one tool that will help you to eliminate transitions.
When kids know what is coming next in their day, you reduce the surprise element and hopefully lessen anxiety for them. If you abruptly tell them that it’s time to go to lunch right when they were in the middle of playing Legos and they had no warning that lunchtime was soon and Legos was about to end, there is definitely grounds for confusion on their part. (This is the exact type of situation that could begin a huge transition meltdown with a student that we want to try to avoid)
Sticking to a usual routine and following the child’s schedule are going to be your best bet for smoother transitions. Refer to their visual schedule often and give them a warning of what is next. Following a specific routine also makes it easier to find out if a particular transition can be more difficult for a student because you may start to notice a pattern during certain times of the day. This could mean you need to move the schedule around a bit to eliminate the problem time.
For example, if you notice that transitions are super difficult everyday between leaving recess to go to math than you can put a more preferred activity after recess even if it’s very short.
2. Use Social Stories in New Situations
Unexpected changes in a student’s schedule or a new activity are means for having trouble with transitions as well. This kind of change definitely calls for using social stories also known as social narratives.
A social story is a narrative that shows different situations and how people handle them. They’re helpful for kids with autism to grasp social rules and understand how to handle certain situations. A social narrative should always be written in first person using positive language. They help us get the desired behavior that we are hoping for.
For example, if it’s going to be an indoor recess day instead of an outdoor recess day, you could write a social story on this anticipating some behavior and transition concerns if the child loves outdoor recess. The story should be simple and to the point explaining the where, when, who, what, how, and why, using simple and encouraging words.
3. A Visual Timer is a Must
Advance notice and as much warning as possible can help make transitions go more smoothly as well. This is where my favorite visual tool, the visual timer comes in. I love visual timers because they shows kids a perfect visual representation of how much time is left.
Anything that you can do as the educator to prep and anticipate for the upcoming transition is super helpful!
4. Try a Transition Object
Transition objects, like sensory toys, can also play a crucial role in helping autistic students navigate between activities smoothly. These objects serve as comforting tools, offering a sense of familiarity and security during transition activities, especially for really young children. They are especially beneficial in ABA-based interventions, where consistent routines are essential. By using transition objects, students can ease into new tasks or settings more comfortably, reducing stress and anxiety often associated with changes.
Transition objects come in all forms. This could look like a comforting stuffed animal or blanket, fidget toy, sensory item like putty or a transition routine card. You definitely want to customize the transition object based on the student’s needs and their interests.
During the school day, these transition objects can be introduced in various ways:
- ➡️ Before transitioning to a new activity, the student can choose or be provided with their preferred transition object.
- ➡️ As the transition approaches, the student can engage with the object to ease the shift. For example, they might squeeze a stress ball or refer to their visual schedule.
- ➡️ Acknowledging the successful transition with positive reinforcement, such as allowing continued access to the object during the next activity or offering praise, reinforces the smooth transition.
5. Alternate Between Preferred and Non-preferred Activities
Let’s talk about that visual schedule again…the order of activities is actually extremely important. The best way to set up a visual schedule in my opinion is to place the preferred activity immediately after the least preferred activity. For example, if a student loves to swing, this can be strategically placed on their visual schedule after they complete their math lesson for the day. The hope is that this will may them more eager to get their math done because they know that they get their time on the swing once it’s done. This may look a tad different on every student’s schedule. Some kids may be able to handle two non-preferred activities to every one preferred activity.
A great visual cue for using this type of method is a First-Then board. You can find some examples of First-Then boards in this Classroom Starter Pack Visuals Bundle.
Other Helpful Tips To Use in an Autism Classroom:
Environmental cues in special education are like hints or signals that help students—especially those with special needs—figure things out and move around school or the learning space. These cues can be things they see, hear, or feel, like posters on the walls, teachers giving instructions, things to touch, or even how desks are set up.
They’re there to make things easier for students with different ways of learning, giving them a bit more help to understand and get through their school day. We did talk about some environmental cues above such as visual schedules on the walls or using transition cards.
Sensory needs are a real thing in the autism population and special education population in general. Sensory breaks are super important for autistic students because they help them handle all the different things their senses pick up. Sometimes their senses might get all jumbled up, making it hard for them to focus or switch from one thing to another. These breaks give them a chance to reset and feel more comfortable. They offer a way to regulate sensory input, reduce stress and improve focus.
These breaks are a game-changer because they provide a moment to reset when their senses get overwhelmed, making it tough for them to focus or switch gears between activities (aka-transition). Offering a short break with something they enjoy—such as using a stress ball or swaying in a rocking chair—can help them feel more relaxed, making the shift from one activity to another way smoother!