What are transitions?

What's a transition? In short, it's the moment when we move from one activity to the next.

Some of us find this process pretty simple, and don't think much of dropping what we're currently doing, in order to take up a different task. But for people with executive functioning deficits, sensory, anxiety, attention and/or autism issues, transitions can be hellish propositions.

Imagine you're reading your favourite book, or watching your favourite TV show, writing an essay, drawing a picture - any task requiring your concentration. You're deeply engrossed in what you're doing, and you might even be having fun. Then someone pops up in front of you seemingly out of nowhere, demanding your attention, requiring you to focus on what they want. This can be rather startling, and is usually at least mildly irritating. That person then demands that you instantly drop what you're doing and take up something different, something they have determined to be more important. They won't allow you to finish the paragraph you're reading/writing. If you were baking a cake, they won't let you take it out of the oven. You must stop what you're doing right now, and move on, regardless of your internal dialogue. It happens to all of us at some point in our day.

Doesn't the very thought of that scenario irritate you? Do you feel a little bit of anxiety? Maybe you're imagining how you'd like to tell that person to take their instructions and shove them... well, you know where! ;) So now, take that discomfort and multiply it by a very large number, and you might be coming close to describing the difficulty faced by the student with an ASD. I'll try to explain further.

So, imagine it took you quite a while to settle down to the task you were doing, significantly longer than the average person. You had to fight off distractions, sensory sensitivities/overload, and various anxieties related to moving on from the previous task. Structuring and organising your thoughts, and building up the focus you've been applying to the task took immense effort. And now, when you finally are settled into the task, it feels like you've hardly had any time to get anything done.

Imagine it's your favourite thing to do in all the world, and you are now expected to drop it to take up something much less favoured, or at least less important to you. Then consider that it's very important to you to finish what you started, otherwise everything feels out of control, but you still have a little more to do and the person asking you to drop everything has not considered this fact. Letting go of that thought requires an incredible effort, and the anxiety is consequently building in your stomach. How are you supposed to be able to stop when you're not finished?! Why can't they consider your feelings?! Why should they get to determine what the priorities are?!

Add to that the distracting buzz of people around you as they begin to pack up, thus making it more difficult to organise your panicky thoughts and manage your intense feelings. Next, take into account the enormous effort it will take to get organised for and then settle into the next task, the difficulty of which is only exacerbated by all these feelings! Your mind is racing, your heart is fluttering, your stomach is churning, your work isn't finished yet, you want to please the person who is making demands of you but you are simultaneously furious at them for their lack of caring and overwhelmingly anxious about how you are going to get through this moment.

Now imagine you have no names for those feelings, no way to express your fears, frustrations and fury. It's so overwhelming that words simply escape you; your mind is screaming; your voice box seems to be frozen solid; your muscles are rigid. All you have left in your armory is to cry, or throw something, or sit there frozen, shaking your head, trying to block out all the expectations and demands of people around you, or maybe even attempt to plough on and try to finish the task despite the fact that you are likely to be disciplined for not following instruction.

Once you've moved on though, that initial task is still not complete, so you're utterly stuck on that thought, like gum boots in concrete, unable to budge. Even when you can manage all the anxiety and move onto the next task, you might take quite a long time to let go of that thought, and relax enough to settle into the next activity and get some work done.

And so the cycle repeats, in the end, with very little work commenced, and hardly anything actually completed.

So the recommendations for teachers to assist with transitions are:

1. Patience, Patience, Patience. And take the recommended daily dose of compassion. If you put your cranky pants on this morning, go home and get changed. They are the wrong pants for teaching anyway.

2. Give this student smaller chunks of work to do at a time, taking into account that they might not be able to complete what you have planned for the whole class, and they will have added distress if they have work incomplete. So you might hand out a worksheet with ten questions and tell this student to complete questions one through three. Then if there is time remaining, you can suggest that they might like to do more, but beware of added stress this might cause. Sometimes it's better to simply rejoice that the smaller task is completed.

3. Give advance warning to this child that a transition time is getting closer. This will give them the opportunity to mentally prepare and manage anxiety. You might need to give them a five minute warning, then three minute and again at one minute.

4. Upon giving them the transition warning, take note of how much work they have left to do. Reduce/modify if it doesn't look like it will be achieved. If adapting expectations on the fly helps your student to complete their work, then you should do so. You are naturally better at adapting than they are, so the onus is on you to make that effort.

The key point here is: make it predictable, achievable and adaptive and the stress levels will fall. 

5. Once the current task is set aside, provide visual aides and/or verbal prompts to assist the student to prepare for the next task.

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