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Why transitions may be difficult for children on the autism spectrum

We need to understand that children on the autism spectrum may have difficulties with transitions – moving from one activity to another.

Children on the autism spectrum may have difficulties with transition – moving between activities – at school. It is well documented that changes to routine are difficult for such children and that they can become fixed on one activity and have difficulty shifting their interest.

In any school day there are transitions, for example around break times and lunchtimes, or  heading to PE or music. There may also be transitions involved where there are visitors to school, such as visiting speakers and assemblies. These transitions may also be accompanied by changes in environment and possibly sensory issues. It is common for children on the autism spectrum to have sensory issues associated with touch, sound and vision.

There are also ‘vertical’ transitions as children move from one year level to the next. These transitions are particularly critical as children move from primary to secondary school and from school to adult life.

It is essential that schools attempt to minimise the stress that these transitions cause to children.

What steps can we take to reduce the stress of transitions for children on the autism spectrum?

We all need to remember that all children have their own needs and that these differences are especially apparent with children on the autism spectrum. The first step is to find out where the difficulties are for the individual. Once we have this information we can begin to find ways to ease transitions.

  • Establish a  routine and stick to it
  • Give ample warning when the routine needs to be changed
  • Give a timetable showing where transitions take place – a visual timetable may be appropriate
  • Avoid sensory overload where possible e.g. at an assembly, moving around the school
  • Have materials organised and accessible to move to a new activity e.g. have a workstation where the child can sit, with all the necessary supplies in place
  • Have a buddy, who can model the transition and remind where necessary
  • Keep instructions direct and unambiguous, you may be taken very literally
  • Parents and teachers need to work together – parents can share their knowledge of their own children with teachers

Sometimes a child on the autism spectrum may have limited or fixed interests. Try to incorporate these interests into school work and home activities, as this may allow the child to learn to develop new skills.

Other posts: what is autism? | sensory issues for children on the autism spectrum – vision