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Autism Transitions and How to Manage Them

May 24, 2024

Life is filled with transitions — be it changing schools, moving to a new home, shifting careers, or experiencing the loss of a parent. These shifts are inherent in our journey, shaping our experiences and guiding us through various stages of life. However, for people with autism, transitions can be a lot harder to manage. 

Transitions evoke a range of emotions in everyone, including doubt, fear, anxiety, excitement, or curiosity. For individuals on the autism spectrum, who often experience heightened stress during transitions, providing support is crucial.

This article explores strategies for assisting individuals on the spectrum during important transitions. No matter how big or small these changes may seem to you, your loved one on the spectrum may need a bit more help and support to manage them.

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1. Starting a new lesson in school

Children with autism find comfort in routines; they love things that are predictable because it makes them feel safe. That’s why transitions can be tricky for them, like moving from one lesson to another.

While it’s easy for neurotypical students to switch between lessons, for kids with autism, it can be challenging. This is because changes disrupt their routines, making it a bit harder for them to adjust and focus. So, how can teachers help their autistic students navigate this transition?

“Priming” as a way of introducing new lessons

Teachers use a concept in school called “Priming” to prepare their students for a new lesson. With priming, you are previewing the action to occur.

A teacher may introduce new vocabulary before reading a passage. The student then begins to comprehend what is being stated in the new reading passage. 

This pre-exposure to key terms allows students to start grasping the concepts they will encounter in the lesson. It’s a valuable tool to ease transitions, particularly for students with autism who benefit from predictability and routine in their learning environments.

2. School transitions

School transitions can be very stressful. The disruption of established routines and the uncertainty associated with new activities or classrooms contribute to heightened anxiety in these children.

This is normal for every child, but it’s especially difficult for children on the spectrum. They change friends, teachers, school routes, and the environment they are used to. So, what can you, as a parent, do to help your little one with these transitions?

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Prepare in advance

As a parent of a child on the spectrum, you already know how important it is to prepare everything in advance. In this case, you can contact the school early and ask if your child can visit the school before their first day so they’re familiar with the environment.

You can also drive by the school with your little one. Perhaps walk around the grounds before school begins. Contact transportation, if provided, and ask the driver to stop by and meet your child. Get on and off the bus for practice.

Some other things that may help you and your child prepare:

  • Ask the teacher to send the first week’s schedule home for review.
  • Ask if the teacher might send some pictures of herself and support staff prior to school.
  • Ask the teacher to set up a time for the student to find their locker and practice using the combination.
  • Show your child where the bathroom is before the first day, as well as the library and cafeteria.

3. Going on vacations

Going on vacations can create anxiety as many transitions may be made. What about traveling by car? What about taking an airplane? How about sleeping in a hotel? The list of questions is endless.

Even as adults, we all know how stressful preparing for a vacation can be. During all those hectic changes and planning, let’s not forget that your little one may need some extra support, too.

Include them in packing and preparation

First, help them learn how to pack a suitcase. This can help them understand that they will get to wear clothing that is familiar to them. When they pack their hygiene bag, they will see that they get to use their familiar toothbrush, toothpaste, brush or comb, soap, etc.

You can help them pick out a new backpack for the journey. They could buy highly motivating books, toys, games, or snacks that only get opened and used on vacation.

It could also be helpful to use calendars to show when a transition will occur. Sometimes, marking off each day helps the individual prepare, get ready, and adjust to the new event.

A little boy packing for vacation with his mother

4. Holidays and family gatherings

Simply going to Grandma’s house for a holiday meal or family gathering can be a big transition for autistic children. All the noise, the crowded place, sensory overload, and a change in their routine can make your little one feel overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed.

What manageable steps can you provide them to succeed at these family gatherings?

Help them prepare

To help your child prepare for a family gathering at Grandma’s house, you can consider doing the following:

  • Take them to Grandma’s alone first. 
  • Have them take photos of the house, objects, and family members who live there.
  • Have them mark the event on their calendar.
  • Have family members send them pictures of themselves so they can get to know who will be there prior.
  • Make a visual schedule about what might occur at the event. First, we will do ______, then ____, and then ____.
  • Make sure they know there is a space to go to when they feel overwhelmed.
  • Create a social story for them about the event. Give them several pictures of what the gathering will be like, what you plan to do, and what they can expect. Read this story with them daily for several weeks before the transition occurs.

Some individuals may need an incentive to make a transition, even a small one. The First/Then strategy can work for them. Knowing that a favorable activity will occur once they move through the transition can be motivating.

Example: After dinner, you can work on the computer or watch that special video.

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6. Moving

Moving is a huge transition for everyone, but especially for children on the spectrum. Now, all the things they enjoyed doing in their current neighborhood might need to be addressed for them in their new neighborhood. 

Where can they buy their favorite foods, clothing, books, music, etc.? How about walks, if they take them? Where can they walk now? What about other types of stores they like to frequent? What about movie theaters, if they enjoy going to the movies?

This may seem overwhelming, but there are steps you can take to make this transition easier for your little one.

Take small steps toward a big transition

Once you have determined you are making this big change, consider taking these steps to help your autistic child move and transition from the comfort of their home:

  • Use the calendar support.
  • Take pictures of the new home and neighborhood and create a moving story for them.
  • Make sure you visit the new home and help them see where their room will be. It is also important that they understand all their things are going with them.
  • Engage them in planning where things will go in the new home.  
  • Let them know that their phone number will not change, but they will have to learn their new address. Put the new information into their phones or on cards in their wallet.
  • Sit down with them, identify their worries, and give them solutions. Make a to-do list, plan out actions, and do it with them.
A little girl looking at photos of a new home with her father

7. Going to college

The transition to college is huge, as it is so different from high school. No one is leading you, guiding you, or protecting you. Naturally, this can be a scary and overwhelming experience for individuals with autism.

Many questions start to arise — how will they find everything they need? How will they know how to get to school on time? How will they find their seat? Will they be able to meet deadlines without someone reminding them? What about group projects?

There are so many new and novel transitions to master. Because of that, there’s one thing you need to help your child with  —  problem-solving.

Teach them problem-solving skills

Start early when teaching your child how to problem-solve. Teach them about teamwork. Give them assignments to accomplish, and teach them to set up reminders on calendars or phones.

Also, the yellow bus may not be picking them up, and you may not be driving them. Teach them how to use public transportation early, during teen years. Also, helping them learn how to read a map and a bus schedule will be of huge help.

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8. Transitions at work

Once your autistic loved one is old enough to work, they may still need some help and support adjusting to the changes in the workplace. 

How can we support them in learning how to take a break? How can we teach them to take lunchtime with co-workers? How do we teach them to ask for help at work? Do they know what to do when they finish something at work?

Start preparing your individual for transitions in the workplace early.

Early preparation is the key

To prepare your autistic loved one for work on time, consider taking these steps:

  • Make sure they have jobs at home.
  • Set up volunteer opportunities in the community.
  • Use priming to get them ready for work policies and procedures.
  • Make sure they review the employee handbook at volunteer sites.
  • Teach collaboration, teamwork, and social skills in the working environment.
  • Tell them about your job, or take them to your work, and tell them how you manage the responsibilities. Show them.

Finding the right kind of work supports a successful transition to the world of work. Various resources are available to assist in this process, offering insights into career options for individuals with diverse needs.

Consider exploring these resources with your individual to help them recognize their skills and find a suitable work environment that aligns with their strengths and aspirations. This collaborative effort can contribute to a more fulfilling and successful career path.

A teenager worried at their first job

Managing transitions with autism

Transitions are difficult for all of us, but starting early to prepare for those transitions and identifying small, manageable supports can lead to success. Not everyone learns what to do by just watching or reading. Many must physically do and move through the steps.

Parents, teachers, and therapists should teach meditation to those on the spectrum, with breathing strategies for calming. Teach exercise and help the individual identify calming, self-regulating systems to help them manage the stress involved with transitions. 

Help them understand they are not alone, and we all experience stress when we are about to make key transitions in our lives. Highlight the positives that change can bring about. Be there for them. Listen without judgment. Then, create small actions that help them move forward.

This article originally appeared in our November 2023 issue (issue 158)https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/issue-158-navigating-transitions/ 


Q: Do people with autism struggle with transitions?

A: Yes, individuals with autism often face challenges with transitions due to their sensitivity to changes in routine and environment. The disruption can lead to stress and anxiety for many people on the autism spectrum.

Q: How can caregivers support autistic children during transitions?

A: Caregivers can provide support during transitions by creating visual schedules, offering clear communication, and gradually introducing changes to help ease the transition process.

Q: What transitions are challenging for individuals with autism?

A: Transitions such as moving between activities, changing classrooms, or transitioning from school to home can be particularly challenging for individuals with autism.

Q: How can educators make classroom transitions more autism-friendly?

A: Educators can create structured routines, use visual supports, offer sensory breaks, and provide clear expectations to make classroom transitions more manageable for students with autism.


Priming: A Way to Introduce New Activities to Students with Autism

Why “First, Then” Actually Works

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