Improve Transitioning Skills in ASD By Helping Kids Pay Attention To The Sounds Around Them

Kids with ASD often have limited auditory awareness and processing.  Imagine your life if you struggled with this:  Should I pay attention to the hum of the fan or your voice?  That ringing; is it a doorbell, a toy, or a phone?  I didn’t notice you speaking to me, and now you tell me that I don’t get snack because I didn’t respond?  Their difficulties with auditory processing can fuel a lot of the daily whining and tantrums.

Being able to transition from one activity or place to another is a huge issue for so many kids.  You can help them do a better, calmer job if you “fill in the blank spots” in their processing while they work on making progress in treatment with therapeutic listening programs and other approaches.

Kids on the spectrum often demonstrate limitations in how they attend and process auditory (sound) information.  This is more than language, although processing language is of huge importance.  The ability to attend to, locate and interpret the sounds in the environment is something that we take for granted.  It is incredibly important for a sense of safety and calmness. Our ability to know where we are in space, especially a crowded or large space, is informed by our ability to listen to sounds as they bounce off the perimeters of an enclosed space.  Ever see a child run the edges of a room before he can settle down?  That can be a spatial substitution, since auditory processing is used for spatial awareness.  Ever see a child hit out when an unfamiliar sound, not even a loud sound, is made?  Excessive aggressive responses can arise because the lightening-quick processing that should have determined that it was not an immediate threat wasn’t effective enough at that time.

When a child with ASD struggles with transitions, I am much more aware that I will need to highlight the meaningful sounds as we work together to identify them, shorten and repeat my phrases, and emphasize my words/use meaningful gestures (Dr. Harvey Karp’s toddler-ese approach works great here.)

Using this approach to support auditory processing seems simple, but it is actually a dance as the child first attends to a sound or the conversation about a sound and is then assisted to make an adaptive response instead of tantrumming in frustration and confusion.  If I do not get a response that indicates good processing of sounds and language, I will adapt my responses to boost his skill.  I will modify the environment, my body language, and my spoken language to help him stay calm and on-task.  It looks something like this:

Event:  Sound of doorbell ringing while we are playing nearby.

Desired Response:  Child attends to sound or to my words, and is able to stop playing to walk to the door without agitation.

Me:  “I just heard the doorbell.”

Child:  No glance at the door or at me, keeps playing.

Me:  ” Who IS it…at the DOOR?”  I make a sweeping gesture that ends in a point toward the door. My play actions end, signifying that I am paying attention to something else.   I pause to allow the child to process my words and gestures.

Child:  Stops playing, looks at me and my extended finger pointing, but doesn’t follow it visually to the door.

Me:  “Come….let’s see who it IS!”  I stand up and move the toys we were using away from us, just slightly.  This indicates some shift is happening.  I offer my hand and point again, very clearly at the door.

Child:  Gets up and takes my hand but starts to walk toward another toy.

Me:  “Door time. Open door.”  I  don’t pull the child, but I stand still while I speak.  I don’t want pulling his arm to confuse the message that I want to go to the door.  I have shortened my phrasing down and repeated door twice.

Child:  Stops walking away and slowly walks to the door with me.

This whole encounter could take 10 seconds.  In that time, a child with auditory processing is working and learning, not screaming and fighting.  What a difference!

If you try this and it works for you, please write a comment and encourage other parents to give it a try!


By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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