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Changing Things Up


Research has shown that providing predictable environments and structured routines are critical to classrooms that support individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with autism may demonstrate rigidity and/or inflexibility when presented with change(s). Teachers, parents, and adults who work with students on the autism spectrum sometimes attempt to control the environment where little or no change is ever presented. However, it is extremely difficult to avoid change in everyday life. Situations and circumstances beyond our control can occur, storms close schools, teachers get sick, cancelled classes, etc. It is important to recognize the significance of exposing students with autism to change and teaching them how to effectively cope with the change.
A number of studies have indicated children with autism are more likely to engage in challenging behaviour during transitions. To increase successful transitions, students should be prepared for the possibility of change and the procedures that follow. The use of visual supports during the presentation of a change and teaching positive routines is essential. The following are examples of visual strategies that can assist when introducing new activities.


Priming is a strategy that helps prepare children for upcoming activities or events that usually create anxiety, and/or challenging behaviour. Children may:

  • display avoidance behaviour when new materials or tasks are presented
  • require extra support with social situations (initiating conversation, interacting with peers, etc.)
  • demonstrate difficulty with transitions
  • require extensive exploration before they feel comfortable to participate in a situation.

Priming can help familiarize children with materials or situations, introduce predictability during a new situation, allow for nonthreatening presentation of new situations, and increase a child’s likelihood for success. Priming sessions are usually short and concise and not intended to teach the material, only to familiarize the child so they are ready to for the new situation.
Teams and parents can use modified social narratives or social stories and/or video priming. Recently, new research has shown support for using social narratives or social stories to help prepare students for new routines and events. Presenting social narratives or social stories 3-5 days before the new situation may result in decreased challenging behaviour. Video priming can be used to also help students with autism prepare for a new situation. After identifying the series of tasks or steps involved, a video will be taken of each step and include a spoken narrative of the process and some requirements. The video should be approximately 1-4 minutes. Students then view the tape over a period of time prior to new situation.

The Change Card

Using visual schedules are extremely important for student with autism. When students display independence of visual schedules, adults working with students can begin to incorporate change. When a specific activity is changed, a plan of support should be established. Select a meaningful visual cue when introducing the concept of change (e.g., surprise icon, exclamation mark, a word, etc.). Next, place the visual cue on top of the already scheduled activity. It may be helpful to include the student in the change routine so that the student is putting the visual cue on top of the planned activity. Additionally, introduce change in a positive way. Change activities that are perceived as non-preferred by the student to an activity that is motivating or preferred. Next, change can occur from a neutral activity, and eventually an activity that is difficult to accept. A gradual exposure to change may result in a deeper understanding and acceptance of changes to their routine.