Autism and Transition: Why is transitioning so hard?


Autism Transition - Learn why they happen, what they are like, and how to help. Learn real strategies to help prevent meltdowns from moving to one activity to another.

One of the key things that cause meltdowns in our home is transitions.  This means that whenever there is a change in routine or schedule, we are bound to have a meltdown by someone. One of the main questions I receive is about autism in transition. Why does it happen and how can I help.

Yesterday morning I have an appointment. Normally on a Tuesday morning, it’s my daughter’s time to have an Appointment. Keeping this in mind, It is very easy from coming to mix up this Morning’s events. My husband forgot that it was my appointment, Thought it was hers, So my daughter did not get on the bus.

Autism and Transitions:  Small Hiccups in Routine

To a person without autism, this may seem like no big deal. You just get in the car and go on to school. For someone with autism, 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, and 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 Transitions: Huge changes in routines

That same day, we managed to end the school day with a huge meltdown.  Our school district has some amazing resources, and one of them is having a psychologist that come to the school.  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 change like this for someone with autism affects them quite differently.  To them, it is the feeling of losing a person.  According to how significant they deem the relationship, this can feel like 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 normally like to be touched little on held.

This was one of those transitions, that there was nothing I could do or say to fix the situations.  She 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.

Autism and Transitions: From an Autistic Adult’s Perspective.

One of the best ways to learn about how autism affects your child is through the eyes of someone who has been living it.  An autistic adult.  As an adult living with autism, it is very easy for me to relate to my children that also have autism. This isn’t always the case with my neurotypical children and me, but we’ll save that story for another time.

Even as an adult, unexpected transitions can 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.  Sounds like a lot of anxiety doesn’t it? 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 just get over it and move on.  What you have to remember though, is it is not illogical to a person with autism.  Our brains are just wired differently.  Telling your child to just get over it is equivalent to telling a person with legs to just get up and walk it off.  Neither is going to happen.

Autism and Transitions: So what can we do?

When it comes to autism and transition, planning is key.  We do so much better when we know EXACTLY what is going on.  Though it may be annoying for others, knowing to the minute when we will change to a new activity takes a ton of anxiety away.

Check out our free Transitions Toolkit for a list of ways to help with transitions!


Alicia Trautwein is an autism parenting coach living in Missouri. She is the creator behind The Mom Kind, a website dedicated to parenting neurodiverse families.  She is featured in the "Amazing Moms" coffee table book by Hogan Hilling & Dr. Elise Ho.  She shares her expertise along with her experience in parenting children, both with and without autism.

7 thoughts on “Autism and Transition: Why is transitioning so hard?

  1. Transitions can be so hard. We dealt with this, just the other day, when my son’s ride was late. We try to prepare him for any transitions that we know about and that seems to help. I pinned this. Thank you so much!

  2. I can understand your daughter’s frustration. I am a person who stick to my routine with specified time frame and if doesn’t go according to my plan, I get irritated. So I can totally feel you.

  3. My husband is a high functioning autistic and honestly, he LOVES transition and change – no two days are the same in his world, and because I am his wife, no two days are identical in my world anymore either and I am A OK with that!

  4. It can be so challenging to switch from one thing to the next. I know I feel unsettled when things upset my routine. I find that I do better when I can see a schedule written out. I’m sure that helps kids, on the spectrum or not, transition.

  5. I feel very weak when I come across posts like this one. I use to take care of an autistic girl for a year and at times it is so difficult to sit there and not having any power over the situation. I have read so many books on autism but it is never the same. It is different whe you read about something and when you have to deal with it.

  6. This is a great post, thank you! Often people who don’t have autistic kids don’t understand. We’ve had people look at us funny when they have a meltdown in public and even say that we need to smack and discipline our kids. Having an autistic child means planning a military operation every time you leave the house. ? Unfortunately sometimes things do go wrong. I think calmness, lots of love and understanding are the only way to cope.

  7. Pingback: Autism Transitions

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