Recognising the demands of transitions and finding ways to reduce the pressure for the young people you support.
Original article written for The PDA Space Recognising the demands of transitions and finding ways to reduce the pressure (thepdaspace.com) July 2023. Corrina Wood (specialist autism practitioner and advisor) has created a great webinar about recognising and reducing the impact of demands to help make transitions more manageable for our children and young people. This webinar is available in The PDA Space Portal. Corrina’s website can be accessed here: Platypus training – A different view. What are transitions? When people talk about transitions, they often talk about the big transitions that people experience, such as going from primary to secondary school, moving house or going through puberty. These are all significant, require planning, and can have a massive impact on people. However, many everyday, smaller transitions can significantly affect people, especially if you are autistic or/and have a PDA profile.
By developing a deeper understanding of how transitions may affect your child or young person, you will be better prepared to support them. You may find that once you start seeing everyday events as a series of continuous transitions with rarely any recovery time, you will realise just how exhausting this can be for autistic / PDA people to navigate through their day. Being aware of the impact of transitions may help you manage your family life in different ways that could positively impact the whole family. Five examples of everyday transitions 1. Change of body state, e.g., going from sleep to awake, or a high sensory arousal state to a low arousal state (e.g., playground to the car) 2. Change of sensory input, e.g., pyjamas to school uniform, quiet to loud, busy environments 3. Change of place/environment, e.g., home to school, shops to car 4. Change of thinking / cognitive processing style, e.g., from one subject to another at school 5. Change of social and communication demands, e.g., going from playing alone on a gaming device to joining in a family meal. Transitions and Monotropism Autistic people are considered to be monotropic, meaning they have one attention channel. The theory of monotropism was developed by Dinah Murray, Wenn Lawson and Mike Lesser and published in the journal Autism in 2005. They stated, 'at any one moment, the amount of attention an individual can give is limited” (Murray et al., 2005). More information is in my previous blog Descriptions of Monotropism and Experiences of being Monotropic and also in my article Monotropism = Happy Flow State. It is much harder for monotropic people to switch channels of attention to new and different tasks than those who are not monotropic (e.g., non-autistic people). All transitions take energy to engage, and moving from one channel of thought to another takes even more energy. Using more energy without enough capacity in your reserves can increase stress and anxiety and cause sensory dysregulation, leading to external or internal overload (meltdowns and shutdowns). Transitions can increase pressure and uncertainty for everyone and lead to heightened anxiety. However, if you are autistic and have a PDA profile, the uncertainty surrounding transitions may increase anxiety and reduce energy capacity even further, resulting in a spiral that can be hard to escape. What is Executive functioning?
Executive functioning is an umbrella term that refers to a collection of cognitive processes that enable people to carry out daily tasks and functions. Executive functioning skills affect your working memory and ability to plan and organise everyday tasks. This includes organising yourself to get to work or school on time, getting dressed and planning shopping and meals. This can impact children and young people's ability to develop independence skills such as keeping their room tidy, planning ahead to organise their school bag, and managing their time effectively when playing or doing homework tasks. If you struggle with executive functioning, life can feel quite chaotic, disorganised, and stressful. Considering how executive functioning skills may affect transitions for children or young people is important. Understanding executive functioning can help you plan your day more effectively to support your children and help family life run smoother. Autistic, ADHD, and PDA people can struggle more with executive functioning and difficulties with transitioning as it impacts how you can initiate tasks, follow through on plans, organise events, manage time and remember information and sequences to complete tasks. If your child or young person is anxious, experiencing sensory overwhelm and possibly showing a range of other emotions such as frustration, anger and refusing demands, making lots of excuses to avoid this is likely to be a stress response to a situation. Ideas to help make transitions easier
Consider what demands the child may be experiencing and what executive functioning skills are needed to support them. The following may be a good starting point to help make transitions easier: *Reduce time pressures and be flexible *Preparation, prepare as much as possible before an event (show pictures / visit places / discuss the event and talk about what it may be like and anything that your child may be worried about) *Allow enough control for your child or young person to feel autonomous and in control of a situation; this will help make them feel safer and reduce anxiety. *Giving a few choices may help using pictures or a planner to help to understand. Intolerance of Uncertainty = Fear of the Unknown (Rodgers et al., 2017) Having a sense of control and autonomy can really help autistic / PDA children and young people feel less anxious. Creating more opportunities for collaborative planning and talking through transitions before they happen can help reduce what Rodgers et al. (2017) calls the ‘intolerance of uncertainty’ or ‘the fear of the unknown’. If you are overwhelmed, your sensory system will be heightened (Neil et al., 2016), leading to more anxiety and decreasing your ability to think flexibly. This can lead to another cycle of intolerance of uncertainty and more anxiety. This can be a problematic loop to break and hard to support. If you, your child or a young person are also alexithymic (alexithymia is when you experience difficulty understanding and interpreting emotions in yourself or others), things can be even more complicated. If you cannot read and understand your internal body signals (your interoception system) and you do not know if you feel anxious, scared, in pain or angry, then your mind and body will likely go into overload. For many people, this can lead to more meltdowns and shutdowns and further sensory dysregulation. This means the role of the adult is even more important, so they have a deep understanding of the child’s sensory profile and can support it as needed. What can help? 1. Autistic PDA Identity Talk to your child about their own autistic /PDA identity. There is a lot of wonderful information out there, and a fantastic new website, Autism Understood recently launched by Spectrum Gaming, designed to develop a better understanding of autism by autistic young people for autistic young people. The more children and young people understand how their mind and body works, the better they can manage.
2. Share information
Share information with the people involved with your child, e.g., family /friends/ school staff, to help them better understand autism and PDA and the importance of managing transitions in a way that works for your child or young person. If children are less anxious and transitions are managed effectively, they will be more likely to be able to focus on their learning or other activities and have better outcomes. 3. Collaborate Create opportunities for children and young people to participate in planning events and transitions, talk about what may happen, and try and pre-empt some issues that may come up and ideas of what to do. It is an excellent,e idea to create a safe space/den/room to relax or decide on what items to put in their sensory rucksacks for days out that may support them; having something familiar from home to take with them may help too. 4. Sandwiching
In her webinar, Corinna Wood suggested sandwiching events, which can be very successful. Sandwiching can help make transitions and a day run smoother if a trickier activity is planned between two preferred ones, e.g., gaming time, homework, or watching TV (as opposed to going straight from homework to another demand, such as family shopping, which may be stressful). 5. Planning and Time Watches/timers may help (but could also be a demand), and using visual aids may help if your child or young person is also part of the planning process. It also helps to plan in ‘down time’ as due to autistic people being monotropic (single attention channel), it can take more time and energy to move between tasks physically and cognitively, and it can help to be aware of this and allow lots of extra time and flexibility in your day. The general rule is that less is more! Reducing the number of demands and transitions an autistic / PDA person has to manage daily will help reduce anxiety. This will give children and young people more time to help keep their minds and body regulated and get the most out of their days.