Quick Tip (transitioning): The Autism Files

Quick Tip (transitioning): The Autism Files

Mum, stop mumbling!

Quick Tip (Transitioning): Autism Files

Children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have difficulty transitioning from one activity to another.

When my son Michael was a toddler (before his diagnosis with autism at age 3) he would tantrum when I tried to finish one activity and move him to another.


One day he was playing in a kiddies playground and when I wanted to leave, he refused. I called his name several times with no response. I came inside the play area and told him we had to leave – no response. I tried to hold his hand and walk him out – he scuttled off, crying, and scurried high up into the slippery slide tube. After about fifteen minutes of getting nowhere fast, I had to climb up into the play equipment and physically carry him, kicking, screaming and crying, out of the playground, on my shoulders. It was not a good look.

What was the problem?

1.  At first he was so engrossed in playing that he was not even listening to me speak (he couldn’t hear me).
2.  When he did hear me, he didn’t understand the words I was using (my sentences were too complex);
3.  I hadn’t given him any warning that we would be leaving soon.
4.  I had not provided a motivation for shifting to the new activity.

What to do?

  • Keep your speech simple with young ASD children.
  • Five minutes before the activity needs to end, give a simple warning. Make sure the child is listening by going right up to them and getting down to their level and speak slowly, clearly and in very few words eg. ‘Michael, going soon’. Use sign language if you need to.
  • Give another warning 2 minutes before the finish.
  • When it is time to leave, approach the child again, look at them and say ‘finished’ (preferably signing with hand and thumb).
  • Provide a fun activity or extra special toy (that is only used on special occasions, such as in the car) as a reward for transitioning without tantrums.
  • You can use the first/then strategy (say to the child: first car, then special activity/toy). This is a clear, simple verbal instruction.

This approach is a guideline only and can be adapted to your circumstances. Wishing you happier transitions.



16 thoughts on “Quick Tip (transitioning): The Autism Files

  1. That is probably good advice for anyone you live or work with – child or adult, ASD or not. It would certainly make for more polite and calm interactions with others, if people worked on this principle – it would give people a chance to finish what they are concentrating on rather than have others barge in with their own demands.

    And I was very interested in your use of sign language – I know a family for whom signing is an important part of their lives for a variety of reasons.


    1. Thanks d. It is certainly advice that works with all children, especially children who are yet to develop complex speech. I think all schools should be set up as they would for ASD children – it would assist the majority of kids (visual schedules, order, rules, movement exercises etc.,). I agree with what you say about adults as well – we seem to live in a world of constant changes of activities and short attention spans – the ASD persons ability to concentrate for long lengths of time on one activity is to be applauded. Regarding sign language – the ‘finish’ sign is very useful and most ASD people are visual (responding far better to a visual cue, rather than a verbal cue). Most kids in Michael’s autism school could not speak at all (in the beginning) and a number will never speak – so they have to sign and use PECS (picture excahnge communication system).

  2. I agree with d above, it is good advice for many situations. I used to be very involved in dog training and have always used a hand signal together with the word/s and when I use the final command, I add ‘now’ just for general home obedience. In competition however it was a different story and one had to be obeyed on only one command.

    1. Dogs are visual learners too aren’t they Adeeyoyo. I use some signs with my dogs (eg., hand up in front of their head for ‘sit’) as cues – though I have been known to growl and howl at my dogs (too keep them in their place) – haha.

  3. I’ve also found that singing a song to finish up works well for my daughter. The song can be timed to finish in the specified time, and it’s a bit of a routine to transition to the next thing. She really likes geting to them “… and now I’m done!”

  4. Great tips here Gabe. Transition times are definitely the hardest. I was once on an excursion and a young man I was working with didn’t want to leave the chickens so he grabbed one out of the cage and tried to make off with it… took me a solid hour and a half to get the chicken safely back in the pen!

  5. my initial response was much as others here – we would all do well to use these “what to do” guidelines with all children – adult and younger ages both. sometimes i think we forget that adults are just about as much a child in the world they live in as they were at any younger age. we’ve never been this age in our world before today. it’s all new all over again and just about as complex – if not more so – as it ever was – even if we think we know more than we did when we were younger – i’m reasonably sure that i dont.

    you are handling this situation well, and i have no doubt helping others in the process. that’s a good on you. and your son too – because he is helping this world too. thanks on both of you.

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