Helping Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Adjust to Change

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Serra Langone, M.S., M.Ed., LABA, BCBA

Dealing with change is difficult. While most of us expect and even plan for the inevitable changes life will bring, we may find ourselves resisting a major change or having difficulty adjusting to new circumstances. This is especially true for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities.

Here at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Wilmington, Mass., our students had a lot of adjusting to do after our recent move from our previous location. Our new school has some wonderful amenities and offerings including a big, bright cafeteria, an art/music room, and an enhanced vocational program. Nevertheless, settling into a new environment is challenging.

For the most part, the transition went well due to pre-move preparations and after-the-move strategies we put in place. Below are some techniques we used with our students that you may want to use to help your child with special needs adjust to a big change.

Be consistent
Try to keep the environment and the daily schedule as consistent as possible. If you are moving into a new house in a new neighborhood, for example, try to put your child’s favorite items such as toys, books, and even furniture, in a familiar place. Many of us welcome the opportunity to set up a new home in a different way, but children with special needs may benefit from the comfort that “sameness” provides. This includes the sameness of family routines and traditions.

Before our move, staff members set up the new classrooms to look the same as the old ones. When the students entered their new classrooms, iPads, therapy balls, and other materials were in the same places they had been in their old classrooms. We also tried to keep the daily routine the same, as much as possible.

Provide a “sneak peek”
We offered our students and their families a “sneak peek” of the new school before the move. This provided the children the opportunity to tour the school with their families so everyone could see the new space together. After the tour, family members were encouraged to talk to their children about the move and help build enthusiasm about the additional amenities at the new school.

Be sure to prepare your child for an upcoming change before it happens by talking about it and, if possible, helping him (or her) to understand how things will be different by giving him a “sneak peek.”

Increase rewards; decrease demands
Transitioning from one activity or setting to another can often be challenging for young people with special needs. At the new school, our students had to learn where the bathrooms were and how to get from their classrooms to the cafeteria and the gym.

To help decrease confusion and other behavior challenges around these transitions, we increased reinforcement – such as verbal praise, edible treats, and breaks – for the first week or so after the move, especially with some of our students who were having a more difficult time. We also temporarily decreased some of the demands we put on them.

If your child is engaging in problem behaviors after experiencing a major change, you could take some pressure off at home by reducing his list of chores and giving him more time to relax, explore the new environment, and have fun.

Even without the added stress that accompanies a major change, children with special needs are likely to have meltdowns from time to time. When they do, de-escalation techniques such as remaining calm, removing or mitigating sensory triggers – such as loud noises, flashing lights, and temperature extremes – and providing desirable distractions (e.g. interesting activities, a comfort item, or a favorite food) can be very helpful in getting them back on track.

Give it time
Children with special needs require more time to adjust to a new situation than typically developing children. Be patient and know that you may need to work through some challenging behaviors during the adjustment period.

Whether it is getting used to a new school, welcoming a new baby, or moving to a different town, dealing with change is difficult for everyone. However, with careful planning, lots of explaining, comforting consistency, and patience and understanding, you and you can help your child with special needs successfully navigate the changes life will inevitably present.

[Read a column about helping children with ASD prepare for change.]

Serra Langone, M.S. M.Ed., BCBA, is the Clinical Director of the May Center for Brain Injusry and Neurobehavioral Disorders in Norwood, Mass.. She can be reached at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and those with other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. In addition to its school for children and adolescents with brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit