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Transitioning

Transitioning – changing from one activity or setting to another – is a common challenge for persons on the autism spectrum. Autistic persons are usually most comfortable with sameness and predictability; shifting attention from one thing to another in an environment that feels confusing and overwhelming can not only be a challenge but can cause a meltdown. Research has shown that approximately 25% of each day – whether at school, at home, at work, or wherever – is spent transitioning.

We grandparents should be aware of five things that can help with transitioning.


  1. EXPLANATION – Explain what the next thing (location, activity, project) will be. “Next we will go into the kitchen. The kitchen is the room where we prepare food for our meals. It has a refrigerator and a stove . . . While there we will prepare our lunch.”

  2. CUE – A cue is a visual and/or verbal symbol for the next location or activity or project. For example, saying the word “kitchen,” or showing a photo of the kitchen or the word “kitchen” written on a small card, are examples of cues. A cue can be a helpful part of a transition.

  3. COUNTDOWN – A countdown is simply the allowance of a certain amount of time to pass between the cue and the actual transition. “In 3 minutes we will go to the kitchen . . . 2 minutes left . . . now only 1 minute . . . “ The countdown can be long or short depending on the type of transition. For example, if you are at a playground getting ready to go home, you may use a 10-minute countdown: “In 10 minutes we will go home, so enjoy these remaining minutes here at the playground. . . Still 9 minutes left to play . . . etc.” A clock is countdown device that can be very effective if the person understands clock movements. If not, there is a clock-like device called a Time-Timer that shows the remaining time in an ever-shrinking section of red. Another idea is to use color Post-It notes that are removed each minute. Regardless, a countdown of some sort can be very helpful. But one warning. Phrases such as “Just a second,” “In a minute,” and “In a while” are often not easy for a child with autism to comprehend appropriately. It’s best to stick to precise time intervals.

  4. POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT – “Wonderful! You walked into the kitchen without any problems. I am so proud of you! Here is a special sticker.” Positive reinforcement can consist of praise or a reward (candy, screen time, etc.) or both. “You did so well leaving the playground, and I’m proud of you. As a reward, you can now play with your Amazon Fire.”


Successful transitioning is often not as simple as those four steps, but they can provide an effective foundation.


Persons with autism often have trouble with sequencing and understanding relationships between steps, so when transitioning it’s best to focus on as few steps as possible. Also, persons with autism often don’t recognize “clues” to forthcoming transitions: other students packing their backpacks, putting purchased items into the bag at the store, etc. Thus the need for cues, etc.


A variety of factors can contribute to the difficulty level of a specific transition: length of time, difficulty, enjoyability, etc. Same with environmental factors such as loudness, crowdedness, etc.


In Nancy Mucklow’s book, GRANDPARENT’S GUIDE TO AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS, she offers “The Ten-Second Room Zoom.” When you take your child to a new place, stop at the entrance and narrate what you see and what you’re thinking: “This room has a lot of people, some sitting and some standing and some walking around. We will have to decide which we will do. And we will want to move carefully so we don’t bump into other people . . .” She notes that this raises awareness and helps them learn to match their actions to specific situations.


And finally, it’s a good idea to always have a meltdown contingency plan – what you’ll do in case of a meltdown. (This topic has been addressed in a previous article in the Blog section of the Autism Grandparents Club website.)


The bottom line is that transitions are problematical for persons with autism, and we grandparents can help our own grandchildren make continual progress with navigating them.

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