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Stress-Free Transitions from One Activity/Place to Another

Visual schedules and timers help promote predictability and teach flexibility.

Transitioning from one activity to another, or from one place to another, is an integral part of our daily lives. Being able to transit from getting up in the morning to having breakfast and then to our workplaces allows us to stay on schedule and to take part in the community at large. This is an activity that occurs seamlessly for most of us but can take up a significant portion of our day depending on our commitments.

In the context of a school, transitions for children may include:

  • Moving from one activity area to another (e.g. reading area to group work area),

  • Moving from one classroom to another (e.g. gym room to art room),

  • Moving to line up outside the class for recess

  • Moving to another part of a class to collect materials needed for the work (e.g. to obtain worksheets or stationeries)

  • Moving to a waiting area when waiting to be dismissed

To refine our understanding, transitions involve the termination of one activity and starting another or physically moving from one place to another to begin a new activity. Some transitions are not clearly defined and may occur spontaneously, inducing stress and anxiety for children on the autism spectrum.

Transitions are challenging usually because there is a strong desire for predictability and also a lack of understanding or resistance to the next activity. Without adequate preparation or support for transitions, some inappropriate behaviours may arise.

There are two essential preparation strategies we can use to help create a more predictable structure for transitions.

a. Visual Schedules

Implementing a daily or weekly visual schedule helps create predictability and structure for the child by showing the passage of time visually. For beginner learners, you may take it off the schedule and put it in a ‘finish’ envelope when a task or activity has ended to signal that the time for the task has passed.

The other objective of the visual schedule is that it allows the child to see the next activities, which lessens their anxieties. When designing the visual schedule for the child, consider the child’s visual performance and their ability to keep track of how many activities there are on their schedule. As a rule of thumb, early learners should start off with a First-Then schedule before moving up to a half-day schedule (about 6-8 activity cards).

The First-Then schedule is a great introduction to understanding what activities are currently occurring and what activities are to be done next. It shows two-step sequences and can be a good tool to help a child to complete a non-preferred activity before moving on to a preferred one.

Visual schedules can also be used to show sequential activities for everyday routines such as brushing teeth, getting dressed or wiping the table. Showing these steps can help reduce the difficulty children with autism face when sequencing information and supporting understanding relationships between the steps of an activity.

Another way to encourage accepting changes and unexpected events is to include a ‘Surprise’ activity card to let children know that even with planning, sometimes things do not go according to a set schedule. When first introducing a ‘Surprise’ activity, make sure it is something fun and that your child will look forward to. This will work to build flexibility and develop skills to cope with sudden changes in the future.

b. Visual Timer

The passage of time may be an abstract concept for some children on the spectrum – fortunately, to use this strategy successfully, they do not need to understand the calendar or even know how to read the time. ‘Time’ can be made more concrete by representing it as a visual timer such as a sand timer or a water timer!

A visual timer will help them clearly picture how much time they have for an activity, how much time is left before the activity ends and when the transition to the next activity will begin. For quick tasks such as brushing teeth, keeping toys away or getting dressed, consider using a sand timer or a water timer that can be easily set up and always at hand.

For older children who engage in tasks longer than 10 to 15 minutes, there are a number of timer apps available for download if a phone or iPad is accessible to them. Some like ‘Countdown’ have an area of red that disappears over time to show when the task is ending.

Being able to transition successfully is a crucial skill to have to foster flexibility, lessen anxiety, reduce challenging behaviour and lastly increase independence. Aside from these two listed, there are many other simple tools that can be used to support transitions. As your child grows and develops, remember to individualise these visuals and tools to ensure they remain effective and developmentally appropriate.

Written by Jacelyn Lee

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