Helping a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder Prepare for Change

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA

Here at the May Center School in West Springfield, a private, out-of-district placement for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, we are getting ready to relocate to a new, larger building in the coming months. We are very excited about moving into a state-of-the-art facility where we will be able to serve even more students.

However, children with ASD and other special needs often have difficulty dealing with change, and our students are no exception. To best support them during the upcoming move, we are busy developing plans to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Below are some simple techniques we’ll be using with our students that you may want to try the next time your child is facing a change.

Pre-teaching is an excellent strategy you can use to help a child understand what to expect. Depending on how your child communicates, you can do this by verbally discussing what the change will be, introducing new vocabulary and concepts as necessary, and describing what he or she can expect before, during, and after the change.

In a school setting, we might use a discussion-based approach for activities like making a pros and cons list (along with developing strategies on how cons can be best addressed), or creating a Venn diagram that will provide a visual representation of how things will be different and how they’ll remain the same.

Some children benefit from a written narrative of the change, complete with specific or stock photos, to help them understand the change. Depending on the child, it might be fun to involve him or her in creating the story by asking them to help write the text or select the pictures. For example, at the May Center School, we’re planning lessons for some of our students that will include writing a narrative complete with photos of our current building, the new building currently under construction, and stock photos of movers, moving vans, and new furniture.

Use a calendar
When teaching a child how to cope with everyday changes to daily routines, consider introducing a written or visual calendar to help him or her understand the sequence of daily activities. Ideally, you would establish this system prior to the change occurring so the child comes to view the calendar as a support rather than as something introduced to convey bad news. When the child is familiar with the calendar, introduce a minor change on purpose. Remember to provide a reinforcement, or reward, such as a special snack or extra playtime that the child can earn for accepting and successfully dealing with the new situation.

Try a systematic approach
When conditions allow, you can address change in a systematic matter. For example, when new staff members begin working in our classrooms, we take great care to make sure they are introduced systematically so students get to know them before they work independently in the classroom. We begin by pairing new staff with staff the student is very familiar with. Then the new person slowly takes over, but engages primarily in really fun activities before “work” is introduced. When that goes well, the “old” staff member will spend less time in the classroom while the new staff member will be there more, until the new teacher and student are working together independently.

The best ways to prepare your child for change will vary greatly depending on the intensity of the change as well as your child’s cognitive and language ability. Whether you choose a more academic approach (creating a story together) or a systematic increase of toleration, don’t forget to provide reinforcement! Remember that transitions can be taxing for all of us, and even more so for individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities. Also, consider that during periods of change, it may be a good idea to decrease other demands temporarily until the child is settled in. Coping with change can be enough of a demand in and of itself!

[Read a column about helping children with ASD adjust to change.]

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is the Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates four schools for children with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit