How to Help Autistic Children Deal with Transitions

Two Parts:Being Child-CenteredUsing Tools to Help

Many children, especially autistic children, have difficulty transitioning between activities. Leaving preferred places or stopping fun activities is hard for all of us, and these transitions can be even more difficult for autistic children. With a little forethought and preparation, you can help make transitions easier for them.

Part 1
Being Child-Centered

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    Consider the child as an individual. Whenever you're working, playing, or living with an autistic child, remember that they are first and foremost a child, with unique preferences, habits, and frustrations.
    • Autistic individuals do often respond well to set schedules and may have some difficulties dealing with unexpected transitions or changes, but all autistic children are not alike. Knowing that a child is autistic is less important than knowing about their personality.
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    Get to know what transitions might be difficult. Spend some time observing the child, if possible - particularly if you are interacting with them often (as a teacher, professional, parent, relative, etc.). Get to know what helps and challenges them so that you can be prepared for difficult transitions.
    • Start the transition a little early so that it can go slowly, without rushing. They might want to take a little time to finish what they are doing and shift gears.[1]
    • Try giving a verbal notice beforehand, such as "We're going to leave in 10 minutes. Start thinking about you want to bring in the car with you."
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    When the time comes for the transition, provide choices. The child might not be allowed to skip the difficult transition, but you can provide some choices to give them power over the situation.
    • For example, ask, "Do you want to clean up by yourself, or do you want help?" or "Next it's time for homework. Do you want to work in your room or at the kitchen table?"
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    Listen if the child gets upset. Hear their frustrations, validate their feelings, and explain that you understand. Help them to focus on upcoming enjoyable tasks, and provide reminders of the next time the preferred activity will be available.
    • For example, say, "I know it's hard to stop playing with blocks, but next we get to eat a snack! You can play with blocks again afterwards." Provide understanding without encouraging or reinforcing tantrums or other inappropriate behavior.
    • You can also mention why the next activity matters. For example, "It's important to go to the grocery store, because that's where we get our food to eat. You can pick out something special when we go."
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    Be clear that transitions are not punishments. Remind the child that they haven't done anything wrong; you're just following the day's schedule. Try to be positive and get them excited about the next activity, and avoid connecting the idea of moving to a new task as anything related to what the child has done; if it wasn't a consequence for their actions, you should be clear that it wasn't, to avoid associating it with punishment.
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    Use siblings and friends as peer models. If the child responds well to other children, ask classmates or siblings to invite the child to do the next activity with them. Provide praise and encouragement for all the children involved. Avoid comparing or singling the child with autism out; instead make him or her part of the group and reinforce everybody's success.
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    Praise for great transitions. Use a lot of clear, positive praise when the child transitions calmly. After harder transitions, remind the child that he or she had a hard time but that everything is okay now, and he or she can do it calmly next time; don't blame the child or make him or her feel worse about the transition. Stay positive.

Part 2
Using Tools to Help

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    Make a schedule. Prepare the child for the day's activities at home or at school by writing out a schedule. You can either include the whole day's schedule, or you can focus on a few activities at a time and update the schedule as you go.
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      If he or she can read, use words on paper or a white board. If not, use photographs or pictures. If you want to use them multiple times, consider laminating them and adding Velcro to attach them to a numbered schedule strip. Experiment with different kinds of pictures and symbols to see what the child understands best. Try to use some pictures of the actual child doing the planned activities, if possible.
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    Go through the schedule with the child at the start of the day or series of events. Excitedly talk him or her through it. As much as possible, provide choices about the activities. If the child expresses dissatisfaction with any of the events, try to change the difficult parts, or if that isn't possible, explain why, using appropriate language. For those non-preferred activities, remind the child about the good parts (for example, the fun activity that comes afterwards, or the snack he or she can enjoy during it).
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    Throughout the day, use the schedule. Refer to it as you prepare for transitions. If it's a written schedule, have the child cross off the completed tasks. If you're using a reusable picture schedule, have the child remove the pictures corresponding to completed tasks.
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    Provide transition warnings with timers. Experiment with how much time the child needs to prepare for transitions. Many children respond well to 10 minute, 5 minute, and 1 minute warnings. Try warning the child verbally and visually (by referring to the schedule). Use a timer (either a clock or a visual timer) to count down the time left on the given activity.
    • Timers come in many forms. Some kids respond well to just looking at a clock or seeing a stopwatch/countdown on a phone or cooking timer. Others will need a simpler warning system. You can use colored cards to warn for transitions (where green means "you still have time," orange means "we're almost done," and red means "it's time to transition"). There are also special timers and smartphone apps available that represent passing time visually, using colors, shapes, or stoplight-like indicators.
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    Consider using a "first-then" schedule. For children who might need more reminders about upcoming tasks during transitions, use a two-step schedule to supplement or replace the day's schedule. You can write this out on paper or use a laminated schedule card with Velcro-backed pictures. For example, it can read, "First: Work Time, Then: Free Time" with pictures that hold meaning for the child. Walk him or her through it verbally during transitions.
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    Use motivators and rewards. If necessary, offer the child a reward for completing the transition (for example, a small treat, a few moments with a preferred toy, or tickles or hugs).
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      If the child has lots of difficulty with transitions, consider implementing a token system whereby he or she can earn tokens or stickers for transitioning calmly to new activities. When he or she earns a certain number of tokens, provide a preferred reward or activity, like a sweet treat, a fun prize, or free time alone.


  • When introducing a new timer, schedule, or rewards system, explain it to the child using language that he or she will understand. Be patient as he or she learns the new system, and use a lot of motivating praise and fun rewards until he or she gets used to it.
  • There are several smartphone and tablet apps that you can use to create visual schedules with words, pictures, and photographs taken on the device. These can be used to create schedules ahead of time or to provide transition warnings as you go.


  • Be cautious in using any physical prompts or support during difficult transitions. While you may sometimes need to support a child physically in order to keep him or her safe during a difficult transition, beware of safety hazards. Always follow any safety guidelines and behavior plans that are in place, especially if you're working in a school or other public facility. At home, make sure your child's safety is your main concern.
  • Remember that the child is a person, with real emotions and preferences. They may not express those clearly, but they're still there. Nobody likes to be forced to do something they don't want to do. Be caring and considerate. Don't humiliate or embarrass the child.

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