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Replacing the Countdown for Young Kids With Autism

by Jessie Ginsburg
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Child girl putting book on shelf

Counting down is one of the most commonly used strategies for transitioning children from one activity to another. At school, children often hear their teachers say something like, “In five more minutes, we’re going to line up and go back to class.”

However, as those of us who work with children with developmental delays are aware, children with communication disorders, sensory processing issues and autism can experience more difficulties transitioning than other children. And for these kids, because of issues with language and flexibility, a countdown might actually make them more dysregulated and upset.

What can end up happening when you try the countdown in sessions?

SLP: One more minute until we clean up … 10 more seconds … five… four … three … two … one … . OK, time to clean up!

Child: [Insert kicking and screaming here]

SLP: [Insert stress and frustration here]

After experiencing this frequently, I had an idea: Let children transition themselves by coming up with a time frame and answering questions about what will happen next.

Here’s an example of letting the student lead the way:

SLP: We have to go back to class soon. How many more minutes do you want to play with the trains? One more minute or two more minutes?

Child: Two more minutes.

SLP: OK, and after two minutes, what are we going to do?

Child: Go back to class.

SLP: OK, it’s been two minutes. Now where should we put the trains?

Child: On the shelf.

SLP: Where are we going next?

Child: My classroom.

Asking questions—“What are we going to do? Where are we going?”—allows students to feel in control of the situation. They generate ideas on their own, rather than feeling like the SLP directs and controls everything. In the above example, the SLP says, “It’s been two minutes. Now where should we put the trains?” instead of “It’s been two minutes. Now put the trains away.” This small change in our language, can make a huge difference to the child.

These strategies work well for me to ease transitions in sessions:

Ask what, who, where, when and how questions. Open-ended WH-questions make transitions go smoothly. Ask questions like: “How much longer are you going to read?”, “Who is going to put away the book?”, “Where are you going to put the book?”, and “What are we going to do after we read?”

Mix in choices. Most of us know the best way to make a child feel in control, while not actually relinquishing control, involves giving them choices. Offering choices really works when determining the length of time before switching activities, because time is a factor you most likely want to control. Start the transition by giving a choice such as, “How much longer do you want to play, one more minute or two more minutes?” Leave the open-ended questions for factors less important to control, such as asking where they want to put the toy or book when done. After all, does it really matter if something gets put away on the shelf or table?

Be truthful. Adults often trick children by saying “two more minutes,” for example, but after five minutes or 30 seconds pass, they say, “time’s up!” The only way we can help children understand the concept of time is by being truthful. If you say you will give the child two minutes, then give him two minutes. We want children to develop a sense of how time passes.

Be flexible. This type of strategy tests our flexibility more than the child’s. Most SLPs like structure and order, and we like to be in charge. But we need to remain flexible to use this transition strategy. We allow the student to make decisions. And although it might seem challenging to let go of some control, the results are worth the effort: Our overall goal is to improve children’s flexibility, which will help smooth transitions in the future, and should generate more flexibility in their daily life.

Jessie L. Ginsburg, MS, CCC-SLP, owns and directs Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multidisciplinary clinic in Los Angeles. jessie@pediatrictherapyplayhouse.com

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