When My Child With Autism Has Trouble Transitioning

Right around November, I started to think my non-verbal son hated me. Three days a week, I went to pick him up from school and three days a week became a dagger to my heart.

The first time it happened, I had no idea what was going on. He was led through the front doors by his teacher and aides, saw me, and immediately melted down. He fell to the ground, swung his arms wildly, and broke into tears as he pulled back to towards the school. I was dumbfounded.

Everyone tried to calm him down and, after about five seconds, he did. The scene went from chilling to chill in the blink of an eye, but that initial moment was a nightmare on full display for all the parents around us. He held my hand as we walked back to the car and he smiled as he gave me the hand signal for “iPad”. From that moment on, he was an angel for the rest of the day. I was hugged, kissed, and treated like the best parent in the world.

Now, keep in mind, school pick-up time was never a big joyous occasion. Lucas doesn’t seem to miss me in the traditional sense. The best I can hope for is that he will walk over and rest his head against me waiting at school or give a hug when I put my arms out. A lot of it is due to autism, but that’s just his personality. He doesn’t react that way. Still, this was a major step back from what I was expecting. He acted like I was Freddy Kruger. But it was only once. It was an anomaly.

Until it happened the next day and the next…

He came out through the doors, see me standing there, and lost it. Teachers would hold his arms to keep him from flailing and try to offer excuses ranging from “tiredness” to Daylight Saving Time. He had always been happy at school, I was assured. While the outbursts was quick, they were consistent. I thought for sure that these people all thought I was beating him up at home and shuddered when the clock rolled to three. This was an activity that I used to look forward to.


When his parent-teacher conference came around, it was still a pressing issue for me. No one had any idea why it was happening and there was little to discuss about it. Rather, I just focused on his in-school work and the advancements that he had been making.

His energy level had been better, as was his participation in class. They were proud of his emerging life skills and checks along his checklist. He had been doing better with transitions and physical education. He had…wait. Transitions? I forgot about those.

For years, Lucas struggled with transitions. The mere act of going from one place to the next had caused chaos. For teachers, trying to bring him from class to lunch or recess would be routinely met with problems. It had been a long struggle.

This year, the teachers explained, they had seen that he adjusted better when he could see his Chromebook, the new favorite reward, going along with them. Even without it, he had become better. For the most part, he had improved in an area that I forgot was ever an issue to begin with.

Could that be what this is? Transitioning? Maybe the act of going from school to home was causing some sort of sensory overload, if that’s even the right term. Whatever the cause, my little guy was upset and I wanted to fix it. After weeks of panic at the pickup, I came up with an idea.

I’d simply get him early. Twenty minutes before school ends, I could go to the main office, sign him out, and take him home. That way, even if he goes coocoo for Cocoa Puffs, he won’t be a spectacle for all the parents waiting at the front door. Show’s over, folks.

So, that’s what I did. I showed up, signed the book, and waited in the lobby. When he saw me, he gave me the same half-interested reaction he used to. No crying. No screaming. Yes! Victory! Happily hand in hand, we walked out the front door as the aide returned to the classroom.

The moment we stepped outside, he lost it.

Suddenly, I was the aide, holding his hand as he wailed and tried to pull me back into the school. Rather than gripping tighter, I let go and asked him where he wanted to go. He looked around, confused, and cried. It broke my heart and that’s when I knew. He hadn’t been freaking out because he saw me. The issue was the location, not the person picking him up. It was about the front of the school, leaving the school, or entering the parking lot. There was something else at play.

Further verifying this was that, over the Christmas break, I had to pick him up from his mother’s house. Since we typically trade the kids off on school days, the first time they usually see me again for my portion of the week is at pick-up. This would be a rare day off where I fetch them from their other home. A part of me was dreading it. What if he freaked out?

He didn’t. In fact, he smiled, hugged me, and happily got into my car. It was one of the best Christmas presents I could have asked for. The meltdowns were never about me.

This is the part of the post where I am supposed to give you some grand discovery. I offer an analogy, liken his behavior to something we all do, and tie it all up with a bow.

Yeah. I got nothing.

The truth is that sometimes he has reactions that I don’t understand. They come in waves and what he is OK with today might cause a meltdown tomorrow. Even if he had all the words in the world, he wouldn’t be able to tell me what is bothering him. All he knows is that at this place at this time on these days, he’s incredibly unhappy.

As his dad, all I can do is comfort him and try to minimize the times he’s exposed to these environmental triggers. I can’t get mad or offended or demand he “act like a big boy.” That’s not what this is and that’s not how this works. I have to be understanding and accommodating. As frustrating as it is for me, it’s far worse for him. I try to never lose sight of that.

As the break ends, we’re closing in on another round of pick-ups. Will they be better? Hopefully. Will they be worse? Possibly. Either way, I’ll be there to drive him home. He’s my son. That’s what I do.


Accepting Things My Special Needs Son Might Never Do

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