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Smooth Transitions

Autistic and Asperger's children often soar notches above strong-willed, can be highly argumentative, and just plain oppositional at times. There's also the mother of all undesired behavior, the meltdown.  In my experience, the meltdown is the ultimate communicator of "No!" or better yet, "I'm afraid!" or  "It hurts!"  Therapy and age will help mellow these reactions, but autistic toddlers have no other way to communicate with us.

Meltdowns are powerful, leaving grieved, distraught parents in their wake and when they rear their ugly heads, nothing can be done but to ride out the storm. Making sure toddlers don't hurt themselves is about the best thing that can be done. Well, except for being a very observant parent.  This can help predict when those storms are brewing and, unlike the weather, give you hints to prevent them in the first place.
Toddler autists can 'go, go, go' until they drop and be completely unaware of hunger or need of sleep. And, sometimes, out of the blue, his favorite video or beloved toy can all of a sudden cause meltdown. At our house, though, nothing seemed to cause meltdowns as often as 'transitions.'  Transitioning is moving from one activity to another, one location to another, intoducing a new plaything, or new level of play or another person. Anytime an autist is expected to stop an engaging activity or leave his comfort zone, you have the elements for meltdown.

One way to reduce those transitional meltdowns is by using a timer to warn the child of an upcoming transition.  Announcing a trip to the park, grocery store, doctor, or a visit from Grandma in 'x' amount of time while physically setting a timer will work well for some.  Tell him of your plans matter-of-factly and kindly, but not high with emotion. Your excitement to go to the park will not be shared by a toddler who is engrossed with the lineup of his dinosaurs.

Now, don't think that you're going to give this toddler a 10 minute warning and everything will be okay.  No, you have to work up to that. You can determine the warning time by the severity of the meltdown.  For example, if going to the grocery store irreversably obliterates your child's world, tell your child 2 hours in advance and set a timer.  Remind your child at 1 hour,  then every 20 minutes until those last 10 minutes. Count those down by each minute.

If there are multiple issues, take that into consideration.  For example, if your child hates to leave home, cannot tolerate clothing, has a fear of being without her favorite food, and cannot function without her stack of books, you'll need to address each trigger in your warning. Try laying out her clothes where she can see them, but don't dress her yet. Instead, explain to her that "in 2 hours, she is getting dressed  to go to the store."   Fill a baggie with her favorite snack and explain that you are taking that to the store also. Grab a backpack and tell her, "Before we go to the store, we will put your books in this bag and take it with us."  Never argue with your autist. Just state the facts sweetly but firmly and don't waver. If she gets upset, just ignore her ( as long as she is safe.)  Let her know you love her, but this is what the schedule is. This is the hard part of establishing a routine, but it will get easier. When the timer goes off, you and your child must absolutely walk out the door. Do the very same routine for every trip or transition that you need to make. It won't take long and she will show signs that the routine is very beneficial. She will gain a great sense of predictability and control in her life, even as a young toddler, and you will see those meltdowns decrease.

Don't forget, you use the timer to get to your destination and to get back home again. So, once you're at the park (for example), go ahead and announce that in 2 hours you will be leaving. Remind your child at the 1 hour mark and then every 10 to 20 minutes. At the designated time, you must absolutely leave.  Do not talk about it or argue about it, simply stick to the timer.  Be sure to do this at the grocery store too.  Announce that in one hour you'll be heading to the check out stand and count those minutes down as it gets closer.  You'll be amazed at how well this works when you stick to the routine.

If your toddler is 2, you will need to actually use the sound of a timer going off, if you have a 4 year old, you may be able to just voice the time. One thing that remains the same though, is that this takes planning, organization and will power.  If your parenting style is a whole lot more lax and your rules seem to get blown around in the wind, the timer method may not work so well for you.  But, it's not the only trick in the bag.

Another strategy is reading social stories to your child. Books about going places you go and what children do in those places help him know what to expect and how to act.  Reading social stories about holidays, doctor visits, going to the store and visits from family memebers can all be helpful.  Don't ever assume that because your child is non-verbal, that he cannot read or understand what is taking place.  Many autists and Asperger's children are bright way beyond their peers and can comprehend and understand things you didn't think possible.  It is not uncommon for them to be unusually early readers.  In fact, pictures, words, sentences and reading hours each day to your very young autist can have an immense impact and be most therapeutical. 

One last idea about transitions. If your child is really struggling, why not have a whole lot less transitioning?  One year, my husband had to do all our shopping because I could not get our autist to leave the house. Going anywhere was sheer misery for her. Clothes were unbearable, and being in the store was just too much for her little mind and body to take in.  So, she and I just stayed home that year. When our little girl emerged from her Winter, she was able to dress and go places once again.  We realized how much we had achieved by staying home that year when we had a wonderful, storm-free Summer.  It's not about forcing toddler or preschool autists to function in our world, many times we just need to hunker down in their world until they are ready to come out. 

Annie Eskeldson writes for families of young autists.  She started using a timer with a 4 hour warning because of many levels to hurricane force meltdowns. She is now able to breeze in and breeze out with 10 minute warnings.

Annie Eskeldson has 2 published childrens's books for families coping with autism.  Visit  where Ashi tells our story of autism.

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