Anticipating Change

Transition is difficult for everyone, but many individuals with autism particularly struggle with change. Since inflexibility is one of the inherent characteristics of autism, how can we calm the waters and help our friends adjust when a significant change is imminent?

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How can we help our friends with autism deal with a new baby arriving in the family, moving to a different house, or changing schools unexpectedly in the middle of the year? I have had friends struggle mightily with these issues, as well as with changes in their lives that might seem insignificant to outside observers. For example, one youngster became very agitated when her family shopped for a new car. She literally refused to ride in the new car for several weeks. Another pre-teen was sullen and withdrawn for several months after her soccer coach moved away.

One of my long-time friends with autism has an emotional meltdown when she must abandon one pair of outgrown shoes for a new pair. When she was younger, her family thought the problem was caused by discomfort since the new shoes were not yet broken in. As the young lady grew more communicative, she was able to express the problem stemmed from her anxiety about change.

In all of these cases, the family, teachers, and others took time prepare the youngsters for the upcoming changes well in advance of the transition. But, in spite of well-meaning efforts to engage the individual with autism in the transitional process, these youngsters found it extraordinarily difficult to deal with change.

The family purchasing a new car decided to try a different strategy the next time the family car was replaced. Rather than announcing the imminent purchase of a new car in advance and involving their youngster with autism in the shopping and purchasing process, the parents just drove up one day with a new car. They drove the old car out of the driveway in the morning, and drove the new car in the driveway later in the day. No announcements and no choices. Just sudden change with the old gone and the new here to stay. Guess what? It worked! Other teachers, families, and therapists have adopted this strategy successfully after discovering that, in some cases, the stress of anticipating an upcoming event can be more difficult that the change itself.

TIP FOR THE DAY: Although this technique would not work in all situations nor for all individuals, some people with autism find it easier to adjust when change is matter-of-fact and without fanfare.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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