Why Do Kids on the Spectrum Have Trouble with Transitions?

Why Do Kids on the Spectrum Have Trouble with Transitions?

Why Do Kids on the Spectrum Have Trouble with Transitions?

Throughout the day, it’s natural to shift from one activity to another, as well as from one setting to another. Whether it is at home, at school or in the workplace, these shifts, also known as transitions, occur naturally and on a frequent basis.

For children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), though, transitions can be rather difficult. In fact, some children on the spectrum may exhibit problematic behaviors when asked to change their routine or to transition from one task, activity or setting to another. Why is this?

Trouble with transitions

Children on the spectrum have a need for predictability. They benefit from being surrounded by a setting with concrete routines, leaving very little room for any unknown events. However, when asked to transition to a new task, activity, or setting, this creates a space for an unknown event to appear and it raises concerns in understanding what will be coming next.

“Transitions are hard for everybody. One of the reasons why transitions may be hard is that we’re often transitioning from a preferred activity – something we like doing – to something that we need to do,” said Dr. David Anderson, senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. A majority of children on the spectrum also process sensory information more sensitively, such as lights, sounds, and textures, therefore making it difficult to transition into a new task, activity or setting with new sensory input. Autistic children with sensory issues are sensitive to even the slightest changes. 

When it comes to transitions, each child expresses themselves in different ways

Trouble with transitions can be displayed in several different ways, depending on the child and the setting in question. It can range from avoidance, resistance, distraction, or negotiation to a full-blown meltdown. These reactions to transitions may be the result of children feeling overwhelmed by their emotions and/or unexpected changes, or they may be approaches to successfully evading or postponing a transition. “It really depends on how the adults in his life have responded,” said Dr. Matthew Rouse, clinical psychologist.

Read on to learn more about transition triggers, and how to best manage transitions for children living with autism.