One of the key things that cause meltdowns in our home is transitions. Whenever there is a change in routine or schedule, we are bound to have a meltdown. One of the main questions I receive is about autism and transitions. Why does it happen, and how can I help. The following is an example of how this can play out:
Yesterday morning I have an appointment. Usually, on a Tuesday morning, it’s my daughter’s time to have a doctor visit. My husband forgot that it was my appointment. He thought it was hers, so my daughter did not get on the bus.
To a person without autism, this may seem like no big deal. You get in the car and go on to school. For someone with autism, it feels like the world is ending. It creates extreme anxiety, confusion, and a lot of distress.
When this happened, our daughter began to cry hysterically. She quickly figured out the effects of this one event on her entire routine. This mishap would affect her time with friends, breakfast, and, ultimately, the whole school day.
In this instance, my husband used the go-to calming techniques and problem solving to calm her down. He successfully got her to school, or so we thought. After an hour, I received a phone call from the principal.
A meltdown had been going on since she walked in the door. After forty-five minutes of the counselor working with her, they needed my assistance. Long story short, she was able to go on with her day after another hour of me at the school.
Autism and Transition: Understanding the Different Situations
Over the summer, our daughter had come off the waitlist and began seeing her new psychologist. However, the same psychologist wound up, accepting a new position closer to her home. Though my daughter will get to see a new person at school, this is a huge transition for her.
For someone without autism, a change like this can be frustrating and annoying. Though it is not ideal, it is easy to work through. A transition like this for someone with autism is affected quite differently. For many autistic individuals, it is the feeling of losing a person. How badly it affects depends on how significant they deem the relationship. This transition can feel anywhere from a break up to feeling as if the person died.
Our daughter did well when the psychologist told her, but the eight-minute ride on the bus is where she let her emotions out. She came running off the bus in complete, heartbreaking tears. I carried her home to spend the next twenty minutes, trying to figure out what was wrong.
When our daughter goes into a meltdown, she stops speaking at all. It isn’t something she can control. You have to wait out the storm until she calms enough to start giving one-word answers. I knew whatever it was that was causing it was huge to her. I held her for over an hour, and she doesn’t usually like to be touched little or held.
This issue was one of those transitions that there was nothing I could do or say to fix the situations. Our daughter understood logical reasonings. She understood she would meet someone new and that the choice had nothing to do with her. That being said, that doesn’t change how she felt. The only thing that we could do was to let her cry, comfort her, and she eventually went to sleep for the night.
Even as an adult, unexpected transitions can still send me into a whirlwind. Things like last second trips, appointments going to long, dinner not being on time give me extreme anxiety. The best I can reference it would be the feeling of panic if you lost your child in a busy amusement park. It sounds like a lot of anxiety. That is because it is.
The amount of anxiety unexpected transitions causes a person with autism may sound illogical to you. You may want your child to get over it and move on. What you have to remember, though, is it is not unreasonable to a person with autism. Our brains are wired differently. Telling your child to get over it is equivalent to saying to a person without legs to get up and walk it off. Neither is going to happen.
Autism Transitions: Tool Kit
When it comes to autism and transition, planning is critical. We do so much better when we know EXACTLY what is going on. Though it may be annoying for others, knowing the minute when we will change to a new activity takes a ton of anxiety away.
Prepare Ahead of Time:
Many transitions are unavoidable, so preparing for them is the best way to cope. The use of a schedule is a great way to help your child feel prepared. You can write down daily activities or even use a picture schedule.
One way we prepare for the day is by picking out our entire outfit the night before. That way, there is no morning meltdown due to lost items and not having time to search for them. Any way that you can prepare ahead of time will be a massive help for your child.
Using Social Stories:
Social stories are a fantastic resource created for those with autism. They explain step by step what will be happening. You can purchase ones like going to the doctor for significant events or the social stories book for everyday items. I think some of the best ones are those you make yourself. They can be personalized to the child’s needs and situation.
Break it down:
Making tasks seem smaller helps dramatically when transitioning. Smaller steps are more comfortable to achieve and allow the parent to see any specific causes of anxiety. Breaking it down can be done verbally, or even through picture cards.
Clearly Show When Tasks End:
Sometimes, children may not fully understand a task has ended. This issue causes transitions to be tough for children with autism. The best way to avoid this is to make it clear when a task is over. If using a picture schedule, have them place the completed activity into the “done” section. To verbally acknowledge the completion of a task, make sure to have their attention and say,
“We are now done with_____________, Now we will do______________”
Use Transitional Cues
Another great way to verbally prepare for transition is through transitional words. Make sure to use words like first, then, after, next, now, and later. Some children work better with tangible cues. You could play (or sing) a particular song for cleanup, bye-bye time, and meals. Make sure to give plenty of time so they can mentally prepare for the transition.
Using a Timer:
Time is an abstract concept. So, turning that into something visual is a great help! Any timer can work. A visual timer is best to help with understanding the concept of time in a concrete way. Visual timers make it where the time ‘disappears’ as it counts down. Our favorite by far is the Time Timer.
Is it easier to go on a trip when you know where you are going? Of course! Moving between tasks is so much easier when they can see where they have to go. One way to do this is marking spaces with an X or circle made of masking tape. For example, you can score a spot on the floor with tape for where to sit during reading time. You can make this into a visual schedule as well!
Draw out a map of the house and mark locations of the activities (where you eat, read, play, etc.). Then when you are talking about it, you can use the map as a visual back up.
Using transitional items:
Sometimes, transitions can be plan ole scary! One way to reduce the anxiety of transition has an object that can be taken from one activity to the next. There are many ways you can do this. If the child has a favorite toy, let them carry it with them throughout the day.
Another idea could be to carry a photo of the room they will be going into next. Then they can place that photo in a box or location in the new office to identify the end of the transition.
Allow time when all possible!
A considerable part of autism is taking longer to process things such as changing focus and engaging in new activities. All the further sensory information that they begin to process in each unique situation takes time to adjust.
Whenever possible, try to let them go at their own pace. If you can, schedule in extra time for the transition process.
Avoid Unnecessary Transitions
The easiest way to manage autism and transitions is to avoid too many of them. Figuring out ways to avoid transitions isn’t as hard as it may sound. For example, our daughter doesn’t like changing clothes. So, most nights, we allow her to sleep in her school clothing.
Autism and Transition
The plus to that, there is a little less laundry for me! For our son, the girls ride the bus and all walk home from the bus. Doing this makes less transition in his day. We solve the dilemma of having to get my youngest daughter from the bus by having my oldest play with him while I walk down to get her.