Parents Helping Children with Autism: Coping with Transitions and Change

Hannah Starcher, B.A.

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) change can upset a daily balance, leaving them to feel frustrated and emotionally overwhelmed. Neurotypical children may behave similarly to those with ASD in response to transitions, however, the reasons behind those behaviors differ. Children with ASD fare well with routines and structure, allowing them to ease anxiety and feel more in control.

Finding the reasons behind why children are having such a hard time with their transitions is the first step to overcoming them. A child with ASD may behave differently because they are aware that in responding a certain way they are able to prolong a favored activity. On the other hand, their behavior may indicate that they are overwhelmed by their emotions because of the change itself. By listening to your child and figuring out the correct responses to their behaviors, you may be able to successfully devise strategies for them and prevent emotional escalation.

TIMERS, COUNTDOWNS, AND SCHEDULES:

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If your child is doing an activity and you would like them to spend 30 minutes on it, set a timer to give them a visual representation of how much time they have left. It will also help to ease activities that are more necessary and less fun, showing them that they won’t work on it forever. Additionally, the timer will allow them to emotionally prepare for the transition that is soon to follow.  

Similarly to the timer, giving your child a countdown, like saying “ten minutes left,” will help them to recognize that their fun activity is coming to an end. In doing this, your child may be more emotionally prepared for the next transition.

Schedules can be very helpful in the day to day lives of children with ASD. Creating a simple chart for the week with various tasks and projects mapped out will help your child gear up for the expected changes that are to occur in their schedules. If your child cannot read, or cannot tell time, make a chart with pictures or stickers. Any visual representation that can help them to anticipate their next step is sure to ease difficult shifts throughout the day.

DEVELOP A CALM-DOWN ROUTINE:

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While all of us should continue to practice regulating our emotions, children with ASD often find this especially difficult. Unpredictable moments happen frequently, and when they do you should be prepared with a predictable routine to help ease and calm your child when they need it. Routines can be as straightforward as having them hug their bodies or take a certain amount of deep breaths with their eyes closed. They can repeat their method as long as needed until they feel more stable and in control.

LET THEM CHOOSE - IF POSSIBLE:

Plans have the ability to come undone, and sometimes they may feel detrimental to your child when they do. To help counteract any unfavorable feelings, create a list of choices for your child to choose from. Giving them say in the matter will help them to overcome frustration when encountered with change.

REWARD FLEXIBILITY:

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Flexibility can be a positive behavior for any child to exhibit - especially a child with ASD. If your child accepts the chair that they were given at a restaurant, instead of the one that they wanted, you should praise them for their ability to adapt! Smaller moments are sure to lead into bigger ones. In the future they may have to leave a birthday party that they wanted to stay at because of an emergency - that’s when the small praises that you’ve continued to give them over time will help them to understand when they need to go-with-the-flow.  

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