We know most students experience some degree of stress and heightened anxiety due to change. This is undoubtedly so for students with ASD who often innately find the language demands, flexibility, sequencing and problem solving required to successfully manage change extremely challenging. This is particularly evident when
introducing new or unfamiliar staff members.
Supporting comprehension during change
If students with ASD are able to predict what will happen next, this often helps minimise anxiety and maintains a calm and effective learning environment.
Students can be supported to predict what will happen during change and specifically what will be required of them with
routines and sequences that provide predictable structure, visual supports that enhance understanding and prompts and warnings that can prepare them for the change. Specifically:
- Develop and explicitly teach predictable routines and procedures for the classroom and play areas, such as how to finish and pack away equipment, how to wait, how to move between environments, where to start and what comes next.
- Provide information in a readily accessed format (visual and at a level of comprehension accessible to the student while he/she is stressed, concrete, concise). Use a schedule, visual sequence or 'next activity' photo or object to clearly represent what the next activity will be.
- Clarify rules and routines and present them visually and concretely beforehand.
- Pre-warn and practise specific sequences, routines or rules dependent upon the student's learning style. If the student is likely to become overly focused on the change if warned too far in advance, then consideration must be given as to the most appropriate time to prepare them for the change.
- If possible, provide the student with some control in the change by offering a structured choice or the option to assist with delivering the change.
- Keep language simple, consistent and minimal to support comprehension. Consider what
visual cues may be used to support understanding.
- Remember that students' comprehension of both the spoken and written word decreases significantly once they are stressed. Keep language simple, visual, concrete and succinct.
Sequencing for change
Sequencing and organisation can be difficult for all of us at times. The implementation of systematic and predictable classroom and work routines has been demonstrated to support students with ASD to develop greater independence with organisational skills. When students are able to work from left to right, top to bottom or via a list, they do not have to stop work and consider where to begin or what will be next. This allows students to focus on the task at hand.
It is important when sequencing change to:
- recognise that explicitly teaching students with ASD to follow a sequence appropriate to their level supports the development of greater flexibility. Consider what part of the sequence is most important to learn first (how to start, pack away, finish, and move on).
- introduce change via a format they are already familiar with such as a left to right or top to bottom sequence by changing just one task.
- use interests and strengths by using preferred images to label the tasks in the sequence or as motivating tasks at the end of the new or changed sequence to support motivation and engagement.
- prepare, practise and prompt students of changes to sequences and routines whenever possible. If necessary, provide reinforcement for attempting changed routines or sequences. This may be a token reward or simply access to a preferred activity or item as the last item on the schedule or list.
- reduce the number and complexity of tasks when students are required to deal with change. Having to manage a changed or unpredictable routine or sequence as well as a complex or new concept can be layering stress triggers in the one activity.
- plan sequences and transitions in order to minimise movements and change. Initially transitions and movements may be reduced until a successful routine is established and then increased gradually.
Problem solving for change
Students with ASD often resist change due difficulties predicting, processing and responding flexibly to change. When a known sequence of events is changed, some students with ASD find it difficult to understand that other events in the sequence will still stay the same.
For example, if the routine or known sequence at school is changed, the student may not understand that they will still get lunch after the changed activity or that they will still be picked up at the end of the school day as previously occurred.
Being able to generate options, and/or understand that there may be more than one way or sequence of doing things, is difficult for many students with ASD due to executive functioning difficulties.
It is important to remember:
- A student's comprehension of both the spoken and written word, decreases significantly once they are stressed. Keep language simple, visual, concrete and succinct.
- Pre-warn students of upcoming changes when possible.
- Remember to highlight what will change, as well as what will stay the same.
- Some students need to experience the 'change' before they will feel confident even with a visual and/or appropriate verbal instruction. When possible, practice the change with a run-through beforehand.
- Plan to use rewards and motivating activities to encourage acceptance of change if necessary.
- Whenever possible involve the student in the change planning, for example, "[teacher] is away today. Can you help me make the timetable so I know our routine?" or "We don't have music today. Can you please take off the music picture and put the reading group picture up instead?"
- Present different or alternative options visually and concretely whenever possible. For example it may be useful to show options with arrows indicating the outcome so the student has a clear understanding of the task and the outcome of each of the options.
- Discuss, practise and teach change when the student is calm.
- Maintain calm, particularly when the student is extremely anxious or stressed, about any changes that occur during the day.
Once routines are established, the introduction of planned changes or variations helps develop flexibility in students and provides opportunities to practice strategies and use supports for managing change. Sabotaging known and predictable routines provides opportunities to communicate and practice new alternatives.
- Make change good by practising good changes (swap non-preferred task for preferred task).
- Visually plan and present changes to support comprehension. Introduce symbols or routines such as the 'not' symbol when practising change so that it may be better understood in times of unprepared change.
- Highlight the activities, routines or people who will stay the same during change. For example, "We have [supply teacher] for music today as [music teacher] is away but we will still come back after music and have maths and then morning tea."
- Explicitly teach and practise the skills needed to ask for assistance or a break in order to manage stress.
- Provide increased opportunities to access strength based or preferred activities, objects or routines when practising change to maintain calm.
- Teach or support understanding of the 'grey areas' or unwritten rules relating to the change to develop flexible thinking.
- Consider the purpose of repetitive or inflexible routines and interests to the student. These are calming, predictable and usually provide success to the student.
More information regarding supporting students with ASD to manage change may be found in
Tips for supporting smooth transitions between tasks and activities.