Micro transitions

Like a lot of autistic people, my son struggles with transitions. Getting into the car, getting out of the car, getting into the bath, getting out of the bath – there’s a long list.

When he was first diagnosed, help with ‘managing transitions’ was near the top of our list. After all, there are many, many transitions that happen all throughout the day and if each one of these is challenging, then you are all set for a challenging day. After day. After day.

We welcomed a lovely Occupational Therapist into our home and got some advice and resources to help my son manage transitions. If you’ve done this, then I’m certain you would have been told that autistic people like routines so providing them with visual cues that illustrate what will come next is a great way to help manage transitions. We ordered a lovely handmade ‘visual planner’ and pinned our hopes with it as we pinned it to the wall.

My son ripped it off the wall and hid it. This wasn’t such an unusual reaction for him to something new, so we waited and brought it out again. And again. I’m not sure where he finally hid it, but he did a good enough job that we never actually found it again. Message received.

My son DOES like routine, but he likes to set that routine himself and is wise to any attempts to shape his day in any other way than he chooses. It turns out he also doesn’t like to know what is happening in advance of time, so giving him warnings when transitions are about to happen make the transition MORE difficult for him. When we moved house, he didn’t want to see the house before he moved or talk much about it. He doesn’t like to know that we will be leaving for a trip to the park soon or that his friend is coming to play in half an hour.

How do you ‘manage transitions’ with a child that doesn’t like fore warning, but still very much struggles with moving from one activity to another?

I’d like to introduce you to the concept of making ‘micro transitions’. This is the term I have come up with to describe a practice that my husband and I fell into from trial and error (lots of error!). A micro transition is when you provide your child with a tool to occupy their body or brain while a transition occurs. This tool might be a statement, a question, an observation or an object for them to focus on. The aim is to fill that micro moment where a transition is occurring with something to focus on while you help guide them through the transition.

For example, our son struggles with moving from the house to the car for an outing. Previously, we might have told him in advance we were going somewhere in a certain time and then reminded him up until we needed to leave. This made him anxious and resistant and often meant we never actually got in the car. Now, we pay little attention to the main goal of the transition (getting to the car) and instead focus on the micro transitions that make up the big one. It’s here where we help.

We might get his shoes and as we are helping to put them on, we might talk about the show he was watching previously. As we collect his hat, we might pick up an object he cherishes and suggest it comes with us. As we guide him to the toilet before we go, we might talk about the object in detail. We continue like this all the way until he’s safely in the car and it’s moving. And then we repeat as we leave the car.

Other micro transitions occur as he moves from the bath to bed, from outside play to inside play, from finishing one game and looking for another. At all of these times, we share with him something to focus on as his body moves through the transition.

The goal is not so much to distract him from the transition. He’s fully aware that it’s happening – that his shoes are going on, that he’s climbing out of the bath, that he’s finished playing outside. It’s to give his very active mind something to do while the transition happens. Without this, his mind will focus on the transition and he will become agitated and anxious and often resist the transition. With something to focus on, we can help guide him through the transition with fewer challenges.

Visual planners are a great help for some children. Timers that count down an activity may benefit others. But if your child is made anxious and angry by these sorts of tools, then try a micro transition. It’s free!

3 replies
  1. Jo
    Jo says:

    This is perfect for my son, and in fact we already do a lot of these micro transitions. It’s the often the only he’ll be able to get dressed. Thank you for explaining, it’s nice to know it’s not just us!

  2. Kristin Pothast
    Kristin Pothast says:

    Hi! My son is six and I see the same sort of anxiety and resistance if I try to talk up an upcoming event or change. I’ve been told over and over that I should be giving him structure and foreknowledge, but it just always seemed to me to be the opposite of what he needs. This post is a revelation that I’m not crazy, and it can be different for different kids. Thank you so much for posting it! Now to convince his teachers that this is the case.


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