Autistic people can find any kind of change difficult, but there are many things you can do to support them. Read our top tips for preparing for changes and our information about common changes such as bereavement, changing school or going on holiday.

Top tips for preparing for change

Find out about the change

As parent or carer, you have to be proactive in finding out what is involved in a specific change. For example, you might know that a teacher is leaving your child's school, but might not have been given any further information about new staff or new timetables. Find out when exactly changes are going to take place and what is involved.

Describe the change

Mark the day of the change on a calendar and encourage the person to count down to that day. Use clear language when describing the change, giving the person time to process what you say, and limit your use of gestures and facial expressions.

Use visual supports

Visual supports can help you to explain what will be happening.

Show the person photos of a new place (eg a hotel room), person (eg a new support worker) or activity (eg swimming). Make a book of photos, or a collection of images on their device, so that they can look at it before and during the change.

Use visual supports to show the outcome of certain activities. For example, if you are going on holiday, just showing them a picture of an aeroplane may make them reluctant and nervous to go on a plane - they may not see the relevance of the plane. Show pictures of the whole process instead, including your destination. This will help them to understand the whole situation better. Reverse the series of pictures to show the return journey.

On the day of the change, or during a holiday, a visual timetable can be useful to explain exactly what will be happening.

Read more of our information about visual supports.

Involve the right people

If the change is because of a move to a new school or care service, staff from both settings should be part of the preparations. The autistic person must be central in any decisions about such changes, and staff need to know about the things they need support with, what they get anxious about, and how they communicate. 

Read our information about person-centred planning and our transition advice for school and college staff and for mental health workers.

Structure transition times

Sequencing can be difficult for an autistic person - that is, putting what is going to happen in a day in a logical order in their mind. Abstract concepts such as time aren't easy to understand, and autistic people may find it hard to wait. You may find that behavioural difficulties occur more in transition times between activities. Unstructured time, such as break times at school, which can be noisy and chaotic, may be difficult to deal with.

You could:

  • tell the person in advance what the change is likely to involve
  • use a visual timetable so they can see what will be happening throughout the day
  • show how long they need to wait before an activity begins using an electronic timer, sand timer, or stickers on a clock face
  • prepare a box or bag of familiar, preferred items to touch or smell in the new setting or during the transition time
  • put an activity picture, word or symbol into a 'finished tray' to signal that the activity is over.

Read more about sequencing and unstructured times at school.

Be aware of anxiety

Look out for signs of anxiety and support the person to express how they are feeling. Give them a chance to ask questions about the change. You could offer a worry book or box where they can write or draw any concerns they have. Explain the good things about the change, for example if you are moving to a bigger house or going on holiday. Create a social story™ to explain what they could do if they are anxious. Consider using our Brain in hand autism support app.

Common changes

We have information for you about some common changes.

Bereavement 

Going on holiday

Moving house

Starting or changing school

Leaving school

Starting college or university

Leaving college or university

Separation and divorce - support for your child (Gingerbread)

 

Last reviewed August 2017