Transition strategies are techniques used to support individuals with complex needs e.g. ASD during changes in or disruptions to activities, settings, or routines. The techniques can be used before a transition occurs, during a transition, and/or after a transition, and can be presented verbally, auditory, or visually. The strategies attempt to increase predictability for individuals on the autism spectrum and to create positive routines around transitions and support challenging behaviour.

Visual Timers

It may be helpful for individuals with complex needs to “see” how much time remains in an activity before they will be expected to transition to a new location or event.

Concepts related to time are fairly abstract (i.e. “You have a few minutes”), often cannot be interpreted literally (i.e. “Just a second” or “We need to go in a minute”), and may be confusing for individuals on the spectrum, especially if time-telling is not a mastered skill. Presenting information related to time visually can assist in making the concepts more meaningful.

Research indicated that the use of a visual timer (such as the Time Timer pictured below and available at helped a student with autism transition successfully from computer time to work time at several points throughout the day (Dettmer, Simpson, Myles, & Ganz, 2000). This timer displays a section of red indicating an allotted time. The red section disappears as the allotted time runs out. –

Visual Countdown

Another visual transition strategy to use prior to a transition is a visual countdown system. Like the visual timer, a visual countdown allows an individual to “see” how much time is remaining in an activity. The countdown differs, however, because there is no specific time increment used. This tool is beneficial if the timing of the transition needs to be flexible.

Team members deciding to use this strategy need to make a countdown tool. This can be numbered or coloured squares, as used in the photos below, or any shape or style that is meaningful to the individual with complex needs.

As the transition nears, a team member will take off the top item (i.e. the number 5) so the individual is able to see that only 4 items remain.

The team member decides how quickly or slowly to remove the remaining items depending on when the transition will occur. Two minutes may elapse between the removal of number 3 and number 2, while a longer amount of time may elapse before the final number is removed. Once the final item is removed, the individual is taught that it is time to transition.

Finished Box

Another visual transition strategy that can be used before and during a transition is a “finished” box. This is a designated location where individual with complex needs place items that they are finished with when it is time to transition. When it is time to transition it is often helpful for individuals to have an assigned location to put materials prior to moving on to the next activity.

The box may be located in the individual’s work area as well as in any centre of the classroom or room in the home, and can be labelled with the word or a visual cue to indicate its purpose.

Research indicated that the finished box, in combination with several other discussed visual strategies, was helpful during transitions from work time to free time for a young student with complex needs (Dettmer et al., 2000). When work time or free time was finished (as indicated by the Time Timer) the student was instructed to put his items in the finished box before transitioning. This assisted in creating a clear and predictable transition routine, which decreased transition time and increased positive behaviour.

Similarly, team members may decide that a “To Finish Later” box may be appropriate for an individual with complex needs. This may used during transitions when an individual has not had time to complete an assigned activity. Often, individuals with ASD may prefer to complete an activity before moving on, and this may not be possible due to time constraints (i.e. family member has an appointment to attend, it is time to go to the cafeteria, the work shift is over). In these cases, establishing a location where the individual knows he/she can find the materials to finish up at a later time or date may be helpful.

Objects of Reference

At transition times, the staff presents the student with a photo of the location where he would be going. This allowed him to see where he was expected to go and provided additional predictability in his day. Other formats of information, such as objects, black-line drawings, or written words could be used to provide similar information to individuals. It is helpful for the individual to carry the object with him/her to the assigned location. This allows the individual to continually reference the object about where he/she is headed as the transition occurs. Once arriving at the destination, consider creating a designated “spot” for the individual to place the object, such as an envelope or small box. This indicates to the individual that he/she has arrived at the correct place.

For example, if an individual is a concrete learner handing him an object that represents the area that he will be transitioning to may be most meaningful. If this student is to transition to work with a teacher, staff may hand him a task that will be used during the work time indicating it is time to transition to that location.

Another student may be given a photo of the work with teacher area, while a third student may be given a written card that says “teacher”. When the student arrives at the teacher area, he may use the task in the activity or place the photo or word card in a designated spot. These cues provide advance notice to an individual and may assist with receptive language (understanding what is being said). Examples of a transition object (a book representing the library), a transition photo (picture of the teacher work area and the matching photo located at the teacher table).

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