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Ilana Danneman
BY Ilana Danneman
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7 Ways to Help Your Child with Special Needs Cope with Transitions

Change is inevitable. And for most people, it can present an unwelcome challenge, even a difficulty. But it is particularly hard to handle for children with special needs and their families. Transitioning from school to vacation and back again, from class to class, from school to home, from home to school, or from bedtime to daytime can trigger an outburst, meltdown, or a lot of frustration.

A child who craves stability and routine can take a while to readjust to a new or different situation. A new teacher, new camp, or new clothes are not always welcomed by those who crave sameness. So how do we encourage change in a healthy way and provide a meaningful experience, one that can help promote growth and independence? It takes patience and determination.

1. Know Your Sensitivity

Start by recognizing what kind of things trigger the outbursts. Is it the new activity specifically or the change itself? Are everyone’s sensory needs being met and cared for to prepare for the change? Be an acute observer.

If it’s actually the new activity that’s causing the resistance, you can talk about it, read about it, and help your child become more comfortable. If it’s the change, understand that your child will need a longer adjustment period or to feel more in control. Putting your child in charge of the change can be motivating.

2. Find a Filter That Works

A sensory filter may help your child through trying transitions. Perhaps a weighted vest donned a few minutes before a change, or a weighted soft animal to hold during a transitions can help. Or perhaps your child benefits from noise reduction earphones to keep his world quiet while he adjusts. It may be as simple as a touch on the shoulder or piping in soft music. Once you understand the sensitivity, choose a filter—weight, vibration, music, touch, sound, lights, or oral activity—that will make transition less stressful.

3. Give Warnings

If it’s time to rock and roll or head to school, for example, be sure you have given a warning when possible. You can use visual or auditory timers or give a verbal reminder (be sure your child is making eye contact with you when doing so).

You do not need to give repetitive warnings, though. In fact, those can be detrimental to change and create a dependency. One simple “Fifteen minutes until departure” will be more effective than repeating yourself or setting multiple alarms.

4. Be Consistent

Keeping your routines consistent will reduce anxiety in those resistant to change. It may seem like your child needs more practice, but studies show that security, consistency, and normalcy are what create confidence and an openness to change.

5. Be Calm and Patient

If you feel yourself getting frustrated with a situation, take a few breaths, step aside, and come back when you are calm and have addressed your own sensory needs. A missed appointment or late attendance will not destroy anyone, but your anger might. Sometimes a frustrating experience can give you time to rethink how you are handling things and an opportunity to come up with a new strategy.

6. Allow for Extra Time

Do not squeeze a transition into five minutes if it takes twenty. Give yourself extra time even if you hear, “Mom, why did we get here so early?” You can use the spare time to read together, play a game, or go for a walk, for example. But being late is stressful for everyone.

7. Focus on the Good

Point out the easy transition times. Be sure to accent the positive, even if you have a child who really struggles with transitions. You can point out other areas that your child are skilled in, things he enjoys, and moments when she shines or makes you laugh.

Ilana Danneman

Written on May 10, 2017 by:

Ilana Danneman is a product developer for Fun And Function. She has worked with therapists, teachers and parents of special needs children for 20 years and has been a physical therapist herself since 1986 with experience in acute care, spinal cord injury (Shepherd Center), outpatient rehab and pediatrics. Ilana has a passion for writing and teaching kids (and adults) how to move! She can be reached at [email protected]
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