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Why Can Transitions Be So Hard?

Why Can Transitions Be So Hard?

Image: istockphoto

Transitions can be a big source of stress for some autistic kids, so let's take a look at some of the reasons why and what you can do to help make them easier.


A transition is a change from one thing to another - a task, location, the seasons, even waking from sleep. They happen more slowly and predictably than other types of change that can be stressful, like surprises or having to reschedule an outing because it’s raining. Those types of change are upsetting because they mess with expectations and routines, but transitions are a slightly different kettle of fish.


Attention shifts

Say you’re sitting in your favourite armchair engrossed in a gripping novel and you’ve hit the sweet spot - the cushions have moulded around you in just the right way and the afternoon sun is warming your toes through the window. You’re so comfortable you could sleep for hours, if only the story wasn’t so damn exciting... Emile has just cracked the combination to the safe, the one that contains the antidote for the poison that’s now coiling around his windpipe like a snake. With seconds of oxygen left before he loses consciousness, he has to defuse the bomb attached to his chest before he blows up everyone on the plane. His fingers tremble, as he slowly --

“What’s sixty per cent of $97? Is that cheaper than two for $104?”

A voice interrupts from the other room. 

“Quick, this ebay auction is ending! Is it worth it, should I buy it?"

Your brain scrambles as it tries to switch tracks... 137 multiplied by bombs...

"Damn, where’s my credit card. Honey can you get my credit card? Hurry!”

Argh! You're pissed at the interruption, there’s no way you're getting out of that chair and your mind is a mix of numbers and airplanes and get-it-your-damn-self. That’s pretty much how it feels when you switch off your son's Barney CD and tell him it's time to get out of the car, or when puzzle time is over and now he needs to go sit on the mat.

Attention belongs to a complex set of thinking skills known as executive functions, along with stuff like planning, organising, problem solving and the ability to multitask. These skills are complex because they involve the bringing together of many other brain functions, just like an executive of a large corporation.

Every transition requires a shift in attention, which might seem automatic but is actually a series of actions:

  • Disengage attention from the current thing 

  • Switch attention to the new thing

  • Re-engage attention onto the new thing

Autistic kids can have trouble with one or all of these steps - hyperfocus and perseveration can make disengaging difficult, while sensory overload and distractability can interfere with switching focus and re-engaging. There are other executive functions that impact on transitions as well, like being able to follow sequences and understand how all the steps of a task relate to each other.

Sensory issues

Transitions are tough for hypersensitive kids because all that new sensory input can be so unpleasant and painful for them. Moving from the classroom out into the bright sunshine, starting the rumbling car or even waking the senses from their restful state in the morning can be frightening and uncomfortable experiences for these kids.

It can also take time for their bodies to settle down and adjust to new sensations to the point where they can cope or tune out the input and focus on other things. It might take most of the morning to stop focusing on how hard the plastic chair feels beneath his bottom, or half the summer to get used to the feeling of bare legs after wearing fleecy pants all winter.

Another common sensory area that affects transitions is moving between surfaces. Some autistic kids can have trouble transitioning between physical spaces because they're sensitive to visual barriers (moving from the footpath to the grass, walking through doorways) or because their depth perception is off (steps appear too far apart and scary to walk down, or the jump from the car door seems too high).

Environmental cues

Kids pick up clues from the world around them that they use to understand what's going on and what they should be doing - the teacher giving instructions, the other kids getting out their calculators. Autistic kids can have trouble with this so they miss the cues that transitions are coming up, like everyone heading back to class at the end of lunchtime.

Sometimes they might use things around them as a prop for coping (e.g. their desk is a defined space to let them know where they should be). When you change the environment those cues no longer exist, so kids who were managing before might suddenly feel lost (e.g. being in the gym with no clearly defined spot for them to be).

Receptive language

A transition always involves an ending and a beginning, and to successfully move from one to the other the line between the two needs to be clear, consistent and mutually agreed upon (when school ends the bell rings and then it's time to go home). But for kids who have trouble understanding the people around them, it can be easy for misunderstandings to occur (you said 'art is finished' but his painting isn't done yet).

Obsessions, compulsions and routines

Some autistic kids can latch on to things very easily, including thoughts. It can be difficult for them to let go of that and do something else, or even hear what you’re asking them to do.

It might also be hard for them to move on because they have a compulsion to finish the task that they're doing first - a task that may not be obvious to anyone else, like running through a video game in his mind or sorting his pencils by colour.

Self-imposed routines can also make transitioning difficult. Moving from one activity to another is complicated if there's an elaborate series of steps that he has to go through each time he leaves the classroom - especially if nobody else is aware of the steps and tries to rush him through them or do them out of order.


The bottom line

Unlike other forms of change that can be random and hard to prepare for, transitions are usually well-defined and predictable. It's also pretty easy to understand why they're challenging, so this makes them an excellent place to start when trying to reduce stress for autistic kids. Part 2 has lots of tips to help make transitions easier.

This article was first published in August 2012.

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