Difficult Transitions for Children with Autism

We all process information differently, and this is part of what makes the world go round. If a child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), they process information differently than children who are typically developing. For some children on the spectrum, this can mean challenges with difficult transitions from one activity to the next in their therapeutic preschool program, at home, or in the community. Some children with autism may exhibit problematic behaviors when asked to transition from one activity to the next (e.g. have a meltdown). Why is this?

Children with autism often benefit from an environment with concrete routines that are highly predictable, leaving little room for any unknowns. When they are asked to transition to a new activity, this creates room for an unknown to appear. Many children on the spectrum also process sensory information than children who are typically developing. These kiddos may be hypersensitive to sensory information, such as light, sounds, textures, and more, making it difficult for children to move into a new activity or environment with new sensory input. While a child who is typically developing may not pick up on slight differences in lighting or textures, a child with sensory issues will be very sensitive to even the slightest changes. This does not mean that children with autism cannot learn ways to transition more effectively from one activity to the next!

As a parent, there are strategies that you can use at home to make difficult transitions easier. If your child is enrolled in a therapeutic preschool program, their teachers and therapists may also spend time making transitions a little easier. A therapeutic preschool program emphasizes pivotal developmental skills for children who may benefit from additional support, so transitions are often an area of focus in these programs. By practicing these strategies consistently, transitioning between activities can become smoother over time.

First, Then schedules: Many children with autism do well with concrete instructions with the use of visual supports, such as First Then schedules. These schedules use images to show the order of activities that need to be completed, making difficult transitions more predictable. For example: First: Snack, Then: Wash hands. An example might look like a white board with squares attached with Velcro:


Visual timer: Many children will struggle with transitioning from an activity involving an area of high-interest, such as playing with their favorite train toy. Both at home and in the therapeutic preschool program classroom, try using a visual timer that sets a concrete limit for the time a child can spend playing with that toy. This way, the child is easily able to anticipate the end of that activity (removing some of the unpredictability from transitions).

Transition toys: Some children with autism and sensory issues will experience meltdowns when they need to transition. If this is the case, a familiar toy that they can always carry between transitions can help to make the experience more comfortable for the child.

Keep in mind, transitions can take a lot of practice before you see improvement! It may not happen overnight, but consistency and positive reinforcement can really help to build positive behaviors over time.

Do you think a therapeutic preschool program could help your child with transitioning and other key developmental skills? Contact CST Academy at 773-620-7800 to learn more about our program that incorporates ABA therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and feeding therapy strategies!

Difficult Transitions