Transitioning Autistically: A Case of Can’t, Not Won’t


Written by Chantell Marshall aka Shy Little Pixie

Imagine you are watching a highly anticipated movie at the cinema:

You are completely captivated by the storyline, your senses are dialled down due to sitting in a dark, quiet room, and your brain is 100% focused on the characters and the action occurring on the screen, until, right before the crucial final scenes…

The movie is suddenly stopped, the bright lights return, and you are told that your current movie is being swapped for a different one. You are left feeling disoriented, confused and desperately wanting to know how the first movie was going to end – who was going to die? Were the main characters going to end up together? Does the bad guy go to jail? Why on earth is this happening?? The opening credits for the new movie begin, but you are not ready for this because your brain is still so focused on missing the ending of the first movie.

As Autistics, we are faced with multiple transitions like this movie scenario every day. Life moves at such a fast pace, and we are expected to transition from one task to the next without any difficulty whatsoever.

Transitions can be challenging for Autistics because we often have a monotropic thinking style. We can be so good at hyper-focusing on one task to the degree that we tend to block out any activity around us. I call this my ‘escape into Wonderland’.

I become so consumed by the need to discover every single detail about a topic that I fall down the well of information, lose all sense of time and place, and ignore my bodily signals to eat, drink, sleep or use the bathroom.

(Yes, I have had to make a mad dash for the toilet hundreds of times due to this!)

Monotropism allows us to establish ourselves within the safe confines of one singular task, and our brains so readily soak up all of the information we are learning. It is a little like downloading a new program – everything else is put on hold until this download is complete. If you interrupt this process, your device won’t be able to use the new program – it will be incomplete.

This is how it can feel when we are interrupted; we lose the sense of achievement or completion that we need before we can then consider moving on to a different task.

When we are forced to refocus our attention before our original task is complete, it can feel strange, and leaves us with a sense of loss and intense preoccupation with the original task.

Transitioning to a different task too soon can feel destabilising and disorienting, almost like being woken up from a deep sleep. My brain is still so focused on my original task, meaning that I am often very distracted and not ready to do something new – I need time to adjust, just like most people need time to fully wake up from sleeping.

Being forced to transition to a new task before I am ready also raises a lot of anxiety because this transition involves change, which is overwhelming and unpredictable for many Autistics.

If I cannot anticipate the ‘who, why, where, what and how’ aspects of the new task being asked of me, then I feel mentally and physically stuck and find myself caught up in a spiral of ‘analysis paralysis’ inside my brain and I simply cannot move forward.

Over my lifetime, I have been called stubborn thousands of times due to this perceived rigidity in my behaviour – I even had the words ‘non-compliant’ written on the front of my Mental Health file many years ago because I had so much difficulty attempting or maintaining psychiatric medications.

Needing time to process transitions also causes social anxiety which affects my ability to socialise. I have been seen as rude or unfriendly if plans are changed last-minute and I just cannot attend. I don’t handle spontaneity or surprises at all because I haven’t had enough time to consider all the variables involved. In the past, people have been confused by my inconsistency if, for example, I have been able to attend one friend’s event, but unable to attend a second friend’s event another time. This seems to be taken personally, which has led me to pull away from socialising altogether because people never understand – and times when I have been pressured into attending events, I have become highly distressed and mute, reducing my ability to communicate even further.

Situational mutism is so often seen as a wilful action, as a child or adult refusing to speak on purpose.

Having experienced this since I was tiny, I can tell you that I have no more choice in this matter than if I had broken my arm – it just ‘is’. I can hear the words and visually see them floating in my mind’s eye, and even plead with myself to say them aloud, but in that moment, my speech just does not work. My throat is closed over and my vocal cords are immobilised.

There are two important points that I would like to emphasise about transitions:

  • My inability to transition is not an invitation for you to try to persuade me to try harder or change my mind. You might have good intentions, but this only increases my anxiety and leaves me feeling even more guilty. Please respect my current situation – if I feel that I am ready later on, I will let you know. Also, please do not take my inability personally. It is not about you at all.
  • Sometimes my inability to transition is actually a really good example of my ability to self-regulate, and to set personal boundaries. It is important for us to listen to our bodies/brains – there are times when transitioning too soon will only lead to a meltdown or shutdown, so if we can recognise the likelihood of this occurring, this is actually very healthy!

There is a natural order to everything in life – there is a beginning and an ending to most activities, and this structure gives us a sense of safety and predictability.

As Autistics, we rely on this natural order to help ourselves to navigate an often baffling, overstimulating world.

So often, we just need to be given the grace of a little more time – time to complete our current task, and time to prepare before the next one.

Chantell Marshall is an Autistic advocate with Complex PTSD and ADHD. She has previously written for Reframing Autism on her experiences of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria,  Autistic social anxiety and shutdown.

To read more of Chantell’s writing, follow her @ Shy Little Pixie on Facebook and Instagram.


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The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Amangu, Awabakal, Bindjareb, Birpai, Whadjak, Wiradjuri and Yugambeh peoples.

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