Change is part of life. We move from one task to the next or even move house. But many autistic children thrive on consistency and a schedule – struggle adapting to change.
This struggle can cause stress for the children, parents, teachers, and others interacting with them during these difficult transitions. Instead of reacting, parents, caregivers, and teachers can try and systematically model and teach a proactive approach that helps the child embrace change and utilize flexible thinking throughout the day to practice before an unexpected change occurs.
We are going to focus on:
- Why change can be difficult for the person diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Provide ten tips and ideas that can help both parents and children learn to adapt to and navigate change
- Examples of different transitions and possible changes that can occur throughout the day
Why Can It Be Difficult For Children On The Spectrum To Adapt To Change?
Due to the predictability that some autistic children expect, transitions can be difficult and cause anxiety and stress. The unpleasant feelings that some of these children experience can just be too overstimulating, causing stimming or even a meltdown.
These feelings of the world already being an overstimulating and overwhelming place can be difficult as it is. Then when an unexpected change is added, it can make a situation that was already difficult and make it harder for them to accept change.
Autistic children with sensory processing difficulties or even anxiety may experience fear of transitions. That fear may drive the child’s reaction when they realize that an unexpected change has happened.
Another comorbid or coexisting diagnosis, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can also cause stress for the child trying to finish their current compulsive behavior, like arranging their trains in their spot in line, and they get interrupted. That can cause a range of reactions from mild to severe, depending on the child and their circumstances.
A Good Place To Start
Starting with your child and why they are having difficulties with their changing circumstances is a great first step. Parents know their children best and are better equipped to determine the best course of action.
It helps to remember that new challenges can be scary and are typically anchored in different fears and other difficulties dependent on that specific child. The world can seem overwhelming and confusing for those with ASD, and although predictability can seem more practical for the individual, showing the child a positive change can help them develop a positive attitude toward the change and look at it from a new perspective.
10 Tips To Help Your Child Adapt To Change
Although there are numerous ways to help your child develop a positive attitude toward transitions and unexpected challenges, we broke it down to 10 simple, easy-to-use tips and tricks.
1. Teach coping skills for when their day gets unexpectedly disrupted
These skills could include helping the child understand their surroundings and environment, the people in their environment, and that they can make decisions, including ones that we were not expecting, and developing coping skills that help with the things in life that can alter our schedule and routine.
2. Take a proactive approach to potential changes that can occur
This could include finding out that your child’s favorite bread used at lunchtime is changing and finding an alternate for it. Knowing what changes could occur in the child’s life and what is involved in the change and preparing for the difference can benefit the child and those around them.
3. Talk to your child about changes before they happen
Depending on your child’s skill and development, talking and discussing the changes can help them prepare for the change and what to do when it happens.
4. Use a calendar to mark when the change is going to happen
This could be done in a countdown to change the way and help the child prepare for when the shift is going to happen. It could be beneficial to make the countdown fun and celebrate it.
5. Use a transition board
The child could help create a board that would remain blank until a change in the day is expected. This can be a dry-erase whiteboard or any array hung where the child would see it daily.
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6. Use hands-on visuals
Some visuals can be more hands-on, like a token board that has the change that will happen and provides different ways the change makes the child feel, what they can do instead, or other alternatives based on the child and their needs.
7. Have the right social support around
The support network is the people that the child is comfortable with and can be a team member or staff member who interacts with the child, potentially knows the child’s needs, and can help with the transition.
8. Teach practical and easy-to-use coping skills
These skills would be used when the child feels anxious or uncomfortable about a transition and can help them continue the activity.
9. Teach self-awareness
Self-awareness can help the child realize how they are feeling. Along with these acknowledged feelings, there could be a system where the child could warn those around them if they start feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable.
10. Pay attention, listen, and respect the child and their space
After teaching the child these skills, make sure that the parent, caregiver, teacher, or practitioner listens and pays attention to the words and signs the child provides, whether they are having fun or if the activity or people around them feel threatening to the child. When your child feels heard, they start feeling happier, and their well-being and personal growth can increase, making it easier to learn and develop new skills for other occurrences.
Examples of Transitions or Changes
Due to the unpredictability of the world around the child, it can be very confusing and make a new situation difficult and scary. The level of fear the child can feel depends on the individual and parent and how they react to the change.
Here are a few examples of transitions and changes:
- a detour causes the path to school to change
- a favorite cereal is not available at the store
- moving to a new house and school
- changing the way something is done, changing the rules of a game
- environmental changes with the holidays
- the bedroom layout is changed when they are at school
- a parent changes jobs, meaning that there will be a change in the workplace environment
- a hospital visit can change the environment and routine the child is used to
- any change in routine or daily activities
- an interruption during a compulsive behavior, such as lining up trains or walking to the table a certain way
These changes and the child’s dependence on their set routine or schedule can change and become more intense if there has been a sudden change causing stress; it can also decrease as the child learns new coping skills and alternative ways of doing things.
So, although changes, especially those that are not expected, can be challenging to deal with and process, the autistic child may be better able to handle them the more prepared they are.
Although many autistic children tend to thrive on consistency and a schedule, they can struggle when adapting to change.
Parents know their children best and can help prepare them for challenges from changes in their environment, routine, self, etc. Parents can use tools from talking to their child’s doctor or another parent with an autistic child.
It benefits the child when the parent and teachers can prepare the child for any changes. The child’s ability to accept change and thrive when new opportunities are presented can help the child’s skills, personal growth, and overall satisfaction.
- Buron, K. (2021). 5 Ways to Help Your Child with Autism Learn Flexible Thinking. https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/learn-flexible-thinking/
- Martinelli, K. (2021). Why Do Kids Have Trouble With Transitions? https://childmind.org
- National Autistic Society. (2023). Dealing with change – a guide for all audiences. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/behaviour/dealing-with-change/all-audiences