Monday, January 6, 2014

Why Are Transitions Difficult for Children with Autism?

Many teachers say that the ability to successfully transition is an important skill for their students. Children in preschool and elementary schools may spend as much as 25% of their school time transitioning between activities. Similarly, older students spend time transitioning between classes (Reference: 1). Children with autism may have difficulty with these transitions, with various possible explanations found in research literature.

The "predictability hypothesis" (frequently attributed to researchers Flannery and Horner, 1994) suggests that an unpredictable environment may lead to more problem behavior. Think about how unsettled you might feel if you walked into your home and all the furniture was rearranged. Who did it? Why isn't my favorite chair facing the front door anymore? Where is my ______? This happens because humans crave predictability, and people with autism crave it even more so. Thus, when they are thrust into an unusual or unexpected situation, they protest, often in the form of problem behavior.

Additionally, some children with developmental disabilities may not naturally pick up on cues in the environment that may signal an upcoming change in activity. Thus, a transition may be more of an unexpected event for these children. This may be a reason why the environment seems more unpredictable to people with autism; they may not pick up on these subtle social or environmental cues.

Although these are likely explanations for problem behavior among individuals with autism during transitions, each person is different. When looking at the problem transition behavior of a student with autism, it is recommended that a functional analysis of behavior be conducted for the individual student (References 1 and 2).

So those are the possible reasons children with autism may have difficulty with transitions, and the functional analysis is great for determining your child's specific reasons, but what can we as parents and teachers do to help reduce the problem behavior? That's what we'll discuss in our next posts as we continue this series from Positively Autism.


1. Schreibman, L., Whalen, C., & Stahmer, A. C. (2000). The use of video priming to reduce disruptive transition behavior in children with autism. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2(1), 3 - 11.

2. Sterling-Turner, H. E., & Jordan, S. S. (2007). Interventions addressing transition difficulties for individuals with autism. Psychology in the Schools, 44(7), 681-690.

Flannery, K.B., & Horner, R.H. (1994). The relationship between predictability and problem behavior for students with severe disabilities. Journal of Behavioral Education, 4, 157–176.

"Why Can Transitions Be So Hard?" From the Snagglebox Autism blog:

1 comment:

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