Successful Transitions from One Activity to Another for Autistic Individuals - Autism Awareness

Successful Transitions from One Activity to Another for Autistic Individuals

Transitioning from one activity to another is a part of life at home, work, school and in the community. Transitions involve stopping one activity and starting another or moving from one location to another one to begin something new. Studies have shown that up to 25% of the school day may be spent in transition activities such as changing classrooms, going outside for recess, lunchtime, putting items in lockers, or getting materials for a task. There are similarities in the workplace and at home such as moving from one task to another, attending meetings or social events, eating meals and leisure breaks.

Without preparation or support for transitions, many autistic people find them stressful or anxiety provoking. Challenging behavior may happen at this time.

Transitions are difficult because:

-there is a strong need for predictability
-there may be a lack of understanding what activity comes next
-they may feel upset moving from a preferred activity to a non-preferred one
-a pattern of behavior may be disrupted
-a change in environment may be disconcerting (going from indoors to outdoors, moving from a quiet place to a noisier one)
-multi-step directions for the next activity may not be understood
-transition cues are not recognized (ex. students putting on their coats means recess is starting)
-the activity they are transitioning to is more demanding or not liked
– there is difficulty sequencing information and recognizing relationships between steps of an activity
-a person may have higher levels of anxiety which impacts behavior during moments of unpredictability

Preparing for Transitions

There are a number of preparation strategies to use that help create predictability for transitions.

Visual Timers

A visual timer helps a person to see how much time is left before an activity ends and a transition will begin. Time is an abstract concept so make it as concrete as possible. A Time Timer has a section of red that disappears as time passes. For shorter time periods that only last a minute or two, consider using a sand timer. Sand timers come in a variety of sizes and time duration like 1 minute, 3 minutes, and 5 minutes. These can be great to use for quick tasks like brushing teeth, getting on a coat, or putting something away. When the sand runs downs to the other side, time is up.

For older children and adults, there are a number of timer apps now available including the Time Timer. Have a look here for time apps as well as other types of timers.

Using Visuals to Count Down

Using visuals to count down is a way to be flexible with increments of time. The visuals can be things that appeal to the person and is meaningful to them like a favorite color, shape or character. For example, there can be 5 cards numbered 1 to 5 and placed vertically from 5 to 1 with the end of the task at the bottom. You would start removing the #5 card, moving all the way down to #1. Some examples of what visual countdowns look like can be found here.

I used to make some of my own time tools to have manual control of time. If a task was going well, I could extend the time using my own tools. How I did this was to make a cardboard strips and put a piece of Velcro across it. I then took poker chips and put Velcro on the back of those. I would then remove the chips off the strip as time was passing to show that a task was progressing. Another tool I used was the sit wheel. It’s a wheel on top of a circle that has a picture of someone sitting down. I would then move the top circle along to cover up the sitting pictures to show the passage of time.

Visual Schedules, Different Ways

Visual supports can be used for daily/weekly schedules, showing visual blocks of time. A visual schedule is also a great way to show the passage of time throughout the day. When a task/activity has passed, take it off the schedule and put it in an envelope, signaling that the time has passed and the task is over. You can also see what’s going to happen next which lessens anxiety by creating predictability.

I used to add a “surprise” card on to my children’s daily schedule from time to time to let them know that even with planning, some unplanned things can happen or things don’t go according to the set schedule. This has worked to build flexibility and develop skills to cope with changes because even with great organization, the unexpected can happen.

Visuals can also be used to show sequential steps in a task such as a bedtime routine or getting dressed. Showing these steps can help reduce the difficulty sequencing information and support recognizing relationships between steps of an activity. Do2Learn is a good website to find visual breakdowns of tasks.

First/Then schedules show two step sequences and can be a good tool to help a child complete a non-preferred activity before moving on to a preferred one. They can also be motivational.

Calendars are a great way to break down the days, weeks and months. My 25 year old son refers to the calendar a lot to understand when something exciting like a concert is coming up. He can count down how many days we are away from the event. He has used the calendar to cope with a family visitor. He counted down the days until they left (luckily, just to me). My daughter prefers a daily desk calendar. She tears off one page per day. Different days of the week mean different activities and things that need to get done or upcoming transitions that will happen throughout the month.

Using Objects, Photos, Icons or Words

Research has shown that providing visual supports during a transition can significantly decrease the latency between the time children are given instructions and the time they begin the next activity.

Photos can be taken of places or areas where the child will transition to, increasing predictability and familiarity. For example, at transition time a photo can be given to the child to show where they are going next. The photo can be carried en route to the next location to provide a continuing reference point. When the child has arrived to the spot, there can be a place like an envelope, tray or box to put the photo to show that they have arrived at the right spot.

Use the written word with all visual supports (line drawings, cards, photos) because no one can predict when understanding/comprehension of the written word will begin. Reading is a gradual process that involves years of skill building so it’s important to provide as much exposure to the printed word as possible. Some children read before they can speak.

Concrete learners or young children can be given an object that represents the next activity such as a book for reading time or a mat to sit on for circle time.

Music, such a simple songs, can be a way to signal a transition. Different songs can be associated with certain tasks like cleaning up, starting the day, or ending the day. My son still sings the national anthem every Monday morning to mark the start of the new week. He has been out of school for several years, but this musical cue still helps him to know that a new week is starting. Transitional themes could also be dancing, stories, recorded music, rhythms, or call-and-response which can provide a chance for movement (body break) and repetition. Everyone feels more secure in a routine.

You can change the supports that you use as a child ages because they may no longer be appropriate. A teenager using a Velcro strip visual schedule taped to his desk may make him stand out from his peers, but an iTouch helps him be like everyone else.

Signaling “Finished”

When a task or activity is done, there should be a concrete place to put the item or finished task to let a person know it’s over. This can be a tray or box to put the items into. This provides a clear, visual cue that an activity is done and are moving on to something else. If there was not enough time to complete a task and it has to be finished later, consider having a specially market box for it.

Being able to transition successfully is an important skill to have to increase independence, reduce challenging behavior, foster flexibility, and lessen anxiety. There are many tools that are simple to make and easy to use to support transitions. Remember to tweak tools and visuals as a child grows and develops to ensure they remain effective and age appropriate.

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  1. Craig Buckland says:

    I presently work with a grade 7 student French immersion student who struggles with the new COVID schedule that does not allow students to circulate. Some of your suggestions I presently use, some are not applicable for several reasons and others you listed will be shared with the subject teachers I work with as they often become frustrated and loose patience. I am always looking for resources, articles, suggestions etc. that specifically apply to students on the spectrum who are learning a second language but there doesn’t seem to be much research on this subject. Thoughts or ideas?

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