Why Can Transitions Be Hard?

What are transitions, and why do autistic people often find them difficult or stressful to make?

What are transitions?

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, 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.

Why can they be hard to make?

Attention shifts

Attention belongs to a complex set of thinking skills known as executive functions, along with things 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 requiring you to:

  • Disengage attention from the current thing
  • Switch attention to the new thing
  • Re-engage attention onto the new thing

Autistic people 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 people 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 some people, it can also take time for their body 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 for a student to stop focusing on how hard the plastic chair feels for example, 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 people 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

We pick up clues from the world around us that we use to understand what’s going on and what we should be doing – the teacher giving instructions, the crosswalk light changing to green, coworkers heading to the boardroom to begin a meeting. Autistic people can have trouble with these kinds of cues, so they might miss the signal that transitions are coming up.

Sometimes they might use things around them as a prop for coping (e.g. a student’s desk acting as a defined space to let them know where they should sitting). When you change the environment those cues no longer exist, so people 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 (e.g. when school ends the bell rings and then it’s time to go home). But for people who have trouble understanding others around them, it can be easy for misunderstandings to occur (e.g. you said ‘breakfast is over’ but their cereal isn’t finished yet).

Perseveration, intense interests and routines

Some autistic people 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 their mind or sorting their 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 they have to go through each time they leave the room – especially if nobody else is aware and tries to rush them through the steps 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 people. Part 2 has lots of tips to help make transitions easier.

Last updated 24 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.