Coping With Change and Transition

Points to note
• People with ASD are rigid in their way of thinking, thrive on routine and like to know what is going to happen next.

• When routine is disrupted or something unexpected occurs, the young person with ASD may experience great anxiety and possible behavioural issues.

Small changes can cause more disruption than big changes. In fact, some people with ASD seem to cope well with something like moving house, but a minor change can cause an unusual response. At school any of the following can cause an emotional reaction; timetable changes, substitute teacher, new class rules, losing a favourite pen, sitting in a different place or having a friend or aide absent from school.

• Transitions between classes, particularly in secondary school, can be problematic and unsettling. The student may become distressed when moving through noisy, crowded hallways. The student may be tactile defensive and will have an intense dislike of the inadvertent bumping and jostling that naturally occurs in a crowded hallway. The student might have difficulty judging where other people are heading and in co-ordinating their own movements and might bump into others unintentionally.

• A student with poor spatial ability will easily become lost moving through hallways, leading to great distress and frustration.

• Fire drills could potentially upset the student for the rest of the day. The person with ASD may want to hide or run away and be uncooperative rather than participate in a fire drill. A social story should be used if fire or emergency drills are a problem and drills should be practiced at home and school.

• Changes during puberty can be particularly unsettling to a person with ASD. They may not understand why their body is changing, how long the changes last and could be frightened if they do not understand what is happening to them. Anxiety and problem behaviours can increase or escalate during this time.

• Change should not be avoided entirely as it is a part of life. people with autism can learn how to cope with change when given a supportive environment.

What you can do
• Have a daily routine, calendar or other schedule available at home. A whiteboard is useful and can be easily changed or the young person could have their own timetable in their room.

• At School write the daily routine on the whiteboard or provide the student with a hard copy and stick it in their diary. Give a copy to the student’s parents so they can discuss daily activities with their child and help them learn the timetable. This simple strategy can decrease anxiety about ‘what happens next’ and reduce interruptions with questions that may have been relevant to a previous activity.

• Classes need to have a clearly defined structure. Chaos and disruptions can be unbearable to the student with ASD.

• On a map of the school, use highlighters to colour code areas and routes between classrooms.

• Give the student a 5 minute warning prior to the end of class so to prepare for the transition. This might be a verbal signal, a visual signal or both.

• Where possible, give as much warning as possible of any change in routine. This advance warning can help the student cope with the change.

• If an unexpected event occurs, tell the student what will happen in clear, precise language. Many children are reassured by hearing what will happen after the unexpected event, eg. “After the evacuation drill, we will return to the classroom.”

• Have a place for the student to go to if lost. Make sure it is a place that is quick and easy to get to and where an adult can readily provide assistance before the student becomes too upset. It would be useful to have a copy of the student’s timetable here, along with information and strategies that help calm the child.

• The student should have a consistent and stable person at school that he can rely on and talk to, such as a counsellor. Prepare the student well in advance if this person will no longer be available.

• If you think the student can cope, allow for some spontaneity to prevent the person becoming too dependent on routine. A ‘surprise’ card with an exclamation mark can be used as an alert for unexpected events. Reassure the young person that there is nothing to fear and that it will be ok. (Avoid promising that it will be fun or they will always be expect fun.)

• Give the student positive self-talk phrases to aide coping, such as “It’s different today” or “It’s a new way today”. Social stories can be a good way to introduce this concept.

• To avoid the stress of moving between classes, have the student’s go to the next classroom a few minutes before the other students. An older student or one who does not have an aide could go to his next class a few minutes early, accompanied by a peer.

Difficulty With Rules

Points to note
• A student with ASD will rely on rules to give life structure and make it predictable. This can be an advantage, as rules can be used in a positive way to promote good behaviour. However, when rules change or if they are flexible a person with ASD can become anxious.

• Changes in routine can raise anxiety and affect the ability to concentrate. Too many changes in one day can be so overwhelming the person may have a complete ‘meltdown’.

• It is typical for a person with ASD to be extremely rigid when learning and applying rules and .might see rules as either ‘black or white’. The person may not understand that some rules can be bent or broken in exceptional circumstances, such as an emergency.

• Sometimes the person develops their own set of rules or firmly-held beliefs that help them cope with a confusing world. People with ASD often might become very upset if others do not play or act according to the rules.

• The student might insist on enforcing rules or ‘buy’ into grievances that don’t really concern them. They might enforce rules and scold other students as if they were the boss or an adult. This can happen when the student with ASD lacks social awareness. It can have a serious impact on social acceptance from his peers. Young people with ASD may also have a focus on punishment for the person that broke the rules.

• There is often no understanding of subtle social rules. For example, social convention dictates that students make friends with others of a similar age, values etc. The student may prefer the company of someone a lot older or younger.

What you can do
• Be careful when teaching rules. They need to be taught in a way that allows for some flexibility; the student needs to understand that some rules must be adhered to at all times, some rules can be flexible and some can be broken in exceptional circumstances. For example, rules such as respecting peers and school property should be observed without exception. ‘No interrupting when the teacher is talking’ can be a flexible rule, i.e. it is OK for a student to put his hand up if he needs to go to the toilet or is feeling unwell.

• Students with ASD are strong visual learners so use visual supports to reinforce rules. Make a poster with classroom rules printed on it. List these in positive terms, e.g. “Keep your desk tidy.”

• Young people with ASD need to be taught when it is appropriate to seek adult help. For example, telling a teacher if someone is hurt or in physical danger, but don’t bother the teacher with things that are not important. You will have to explain which things are not important, as small things that are minor to others can be a huge issue for people with ASD

• Carefully explain to the student that other children do not appreciate it when they are being told off or reported to teachers.

• A social story can help the student understand why it is sometimes OK to bend or break rules. Social stories are also helpful in teaching subtle rules of social interaction. See Social stories for more information.

Obsessive Topics

Points to note
• People with ASD tend to have a narrow range of interests. Sometimes this will be one obsessive interest that excludes all other topics. The student may have an encyclopaedic knowledge of this obsession.

• Obsessions can take a number of forms. They can be;
– self-stimulatory behaviours (auditory, visual, tactile, motor),
– attachment to objects (trains, cars),
– interest in one topic to the exclusion of all others,
– verbal obsessions (facts, dates, statistics, car number plates),
– insistence on sameness and resistance to change (lining up objects).

Obsessions change or alter over time but are likely to be a part of the person’s life forever. They provide the person with pleasure and satisfaction. The person with ASD feels safe talking about the obsession because they can answer questions on the subject.

• The person with ASD might talk about preferred interests without any regard to the listener’s interest in the conversation.

• Sometimes a person with ASD will be keen to engage in conversation, but only know how to talk about an obsession. People with autism lack the pragmatic language skills to just have ‘a chat’.

• Talking about a favourite topic can be a way of reducing anxiety as this helps to control the environment and increases predictability.

• Obsessive interests can intrude on thoughts, leading to distractibility and poor concentration.

• At school the student may have little motivation to work on topics that fall outside the preferred area of interest.

What you can do
• Try to understand the person’s reasons for continually going on about their obsessive topic – then try to limit the extent to which it intrudes on thoughts and conversations.

• Identify certain times that the student may talk about the obsessive topic, (for example only in the morning.) Gradually reduce the length and frequency of these times. Use visual sequencing to help with this (i.e. timetable).

• Help the student recognise the non-verbal signs that a listener is growing tired of the conversation, i.e. yawning, looking away, lack of positive verbal response. Suggest a change of topic when these signs are observed.

• Try not to get caught up in obsessive talk or questioning. If the obsessive talk is a way for the student to reduce anxiety, look at ways of reducing stress and finding ways of coping with that stress. See Interrupting, repetitive questions and talking too much for more hints on handling obsessive talk.

• Show interest and give lots of praise when the student talks about something other than the obsessive interest.

• If the student’s interest is limited to one particular topic, try to expand the interest into other areas. Incorporate the interest into other activities.

• One of the most effective ways of managing the obsessive interest is to use it as a reward. It is very motivating for students to be allowed to engage in their obsession without interruption for a certain amount of time each day. You could reward the student for completing his work with free time in the library to read about his obsession.

• Utilise the student’s expertise in their preferred topic (provided the interest is socially appropriate) by asking him to share his knowledge with the rest of the class. Common obsessions include trains, maps, capital cities, weather patterns and statistics. These topics can be incorporated into many areas of the curriculum.

Rigid Routines

Points to note
• A person with ASD can build up rigid routines due to stress. These routines help to relieve anxiety. When things happen in a set order, the person gains a sense of comfort and security. The person might become hooked into a routine that is very hard for to break. Attempts to stop or modify these routines are likely to be met with great resistance.

What you can do
• While these rituals may seem odd or bizarre, the behaviour does serve a purpose. Only try to change routines that interfere with learning, are dangerous to self or others or are prohibiting access to the community, services or school.

• It will be necessary to conduct a review of the person’s stress level and look at ways of reducing stress before trying to change any behaviour.

• One way to reduce stress about daily routines is to use schedules. See Visual Supports for more information.

• Allow for some spontaneity and flexibility within the structure and routine of the day at home and at school. It is good for people with ASD to learn to cope with minor changes in a supportive environment, however not all people with ASD will be able to cope with this.

Introduce the change by using a change symbol on the visual schedule and or explaining to the person that there will be a change in the routine today but it will be ok. Be prepared for questions and some anxiety from the person.