Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities face various challenges. One such challenge involves transition, which is the act of moving or changing from one activity, routine, or setting to another.

Studies have shown that up to 25 percent of a school day involves transition activities, such as moving to a different classroom or returning to class from the playground. It’s important to understand how parents, caregivers, and teachers can support children during transitions and help them move through their day. 

Characteristics of autism spectrum disorder

Children with ASD and other developmental disabilities have a need for regularity and predictability. They often struggle to cope with changes in their routine and find it difficult when a pattern of behavior is disrupted. They may not recognize the steps of an activity or the subtle cues that signal a transition is coming, and do not understand what is coming next. This leaves them feeling unsettled and unprepared. 

Some children with autism take longer to process directions and may not comprehend all the verbal information that is presented to them. Also, research shows that children with ASD are prone to anxiety, which can impact behavior during times of change or transition.

Without a plan in place, children sometimes experience negative feelings in response to transitions. Some children may be confused by unclear expectations during transitions or frustrated when prompted to stop a preferred activity. For other children, waiting to move to or begin the next activity results in restlessness and stress.

Strategies for school, home, and community

Research has shown that planning for and supporting transitions between activities is helpful for children with ASD. Several effective strategies have been identified to ease transitions for children with ASD. 

Transition strategies increase predictability for children with ASD and create positive routines around transitions. These strategies are intended to prepare children with autism before a transition and to lend support to the child during the transition. 

There are several strategies that can be used to ease transitions. They include:

  • Verbal cues and reminders, such as “five more minutes before dinner” or “five more minutes on the tablet.”
  • Auditory cues, such as a timer that sounds, ringing a bell, or playing music when it is time to stop an activity.
  • Written or visual schedules, such as a list of daily activities made up of words, photographs, or icons.

At school, teachers use these strategies regularly. At home and in the community, parents and caregivers can use similar strategies. 

Common transitions at home include shifting from home to school, transitioning from homework time to dinner, moving away from screens and electronic devices, and shifting from dinner to a nighttime routine with personal hygiene tasks. 

In the community, transition strategies can be used when entering new locations such as grocery or retail stores or when starting a new activity. For example, during summer, families might take a trip to the beach or send a child to summer camp. These non-routine experiences will be less jarring if the child is prepared for this change.

The benefits of transition strategies

Planning for transitions and implementing these strategies may be time-consuming for parents and caregivers, especially at first. However, research shows the following benefits for children with ASD when transition strategies are used: 

  • They require less time to transition. 
  • They are more likely to show appropriate behavior and exhibit less challenging or problematic behavior during transitions. 
  • They help children be less reliant on adult direction, which supports the development of independent skills. 
  • They allow children with autism spectrum disorder to participate in various outings meaningfully and successfully.  

The value of social stories

At the Verrecchia Clinic for Children with Autism and Developmental Disabilities, one strategy that we use is “social stories.”  This concept, created by Carol Gray, involves creating a written story that prepares children with ASD for transitions to new events. 

Social stories present concepts and situations in a visual format to enhance the reader's comprehension. They can be used to explain what is happening or what is expected across different settings. 

In fact, our clinic has a social story on our website for new patients and families. It features pictures of our building, our front office, and our waiting room. It reviews activities that children can do while they're waiting for their therapist. Essentially, it orients them to our clinic and prepares them for the first visit.

Parents, caregivers, and teachers can create social stories to prepare children for various transitions in any setting. For instance, if a child is going to summer camp, a parent or caregiver can create a social story to orient the child to this new setting and camp activities. Here’s what that might look like:

In summer, I will go to a camp. I'll take a bus to camp each day. When I arrive at camp, I'll greet or say hi to my camp counselor. I will follow my camp counselor to our cabin. Each day, I'll try new camp activities like paddle boating or swimming. When the camp day ends, I will take the bus home. 

Social stories can be brief, and pictures can be used to enhance comprehension. The following are some tips for developing effective social stories.

  • Use developmentally appropriate and positive language.
  • Incorporate pictures or photos.
  • Read the story to the child multiple times ahead of the transition or novel activity.

To learn more about specific transition strategies, listen to this MindCast podcast

For more on autism and the services provided at the Verrecchia Clinic for Children with Autism Developmental Disabilities visit our website.

Gina M. Marini, LCSW

Gina M. Marini, MA, LICSW

Gina M. Marini, MA, LICSW, is a licensed independent clinical social worker at Bradley Hospital’s Verrecchia Clinic for Children with Autism and Developmental Disabilities.