I was late dropping my son, Sam off at school because my younger one threw up all over the floor (again). Instead of meeting his teacher in the hall for circle time, while the other kids arrive, and walking together to their classroom, we met his class halfway down the hallway. His teacher said hello to him and reached to take his hand so he could join them. Sam, darted around her and ran away. She looked at me knowingly, nodded, and said “We’ll see you guys back in the classroom.”
Sam and I went to finish his morning sequence: we looked at the fish in the aquarium outside the hall; then went into the hall and sat where his class meets; we put the bottle caps he was carrying into his backpack (there are now about 12 caps in his backpack); we stood up again, walked back to his classroom, and met up with his teacher and class in their room.
Everyday we do the same thing, and in doing the same thing we lay down patterns of expectations that make the world feel comfortable and manageable.
Routine is a good thing and we could all benefit from having a routine and a regular rhythm in our lives. But routine is especially important for children with autism. Here are some of the reasons why:
Order From Chaos: Many children with Autism have difficulty making sense of everyday movements, sounds, and actions. What sounds like a symphony to you may sound like white noise to a child with autism. Routine creates order in their lives. These children gradually learn what to expect and when to expect it. Routine creates a safe and secure environment in which life is predictable.
Routine Comes Naturally: Children with ASD naturally tend to like repetitive actions. You often will notice them creating repetition themselves. Routine comes naturally to them, and it’s not hard for them to learn a productive routine in the place of an unproductive one.
Stress Relief: Routine is known to relieve stress in almost all individuals. The child with ASD has a particularly stressful life as he or she tries to make sense of his or her surroundings. Adding routine will relieve the child’s stress to some degree.
Routine Adds to the Learning Potential: Once you can relieve the child’s stress, then it’s much easier to help the child learn new things, new habits, new skills, and new accomplishments. Routine is a powerful learning tool in the ASD environment.
Routine For Individuals with autism Isn’t All Bad
Routine is actually a powerful force in helping children with autism deal with their anxiety, and uncertainty that ordinarily confronts them in daily life.
It’s well understood that children and adults with ASD turn to routine, sameness, and even seemingly obsessive repetitive behaviors as a way to comfort themselves and to bring calm and self regulation to an otherwise anxious mind.
Many routines and rituals are harmless and are necessary for our day-to-day living. Normal routines and rituals, such as washing, tooth brushing, and bedtime rituals, are essential. Some others can take the form of lining up objects, hand washing, or switching lights on and off, which eventually can become an obsession because the child feels compelled and secured in completing these routines. Performing these tasks at a set time every time is beneficial to young children as it provides a level of predictability and security.
But resistance to changing routine can also create problems when those changes are unavoidable; for example, moving between classrooms when going up in grade levels at school, or when a new sibling is born.
Some rituals, however, can be potentially harmful such as poking fingers in electrical sockets or attempts of swinging from a ceiling light. One way of dealing with this is to distract or divert the child 's attention away from the ritual and to find another point of interest that your child can focus on.
A way of incorporating a healthy everyday routine or ritual into the life of a child with autism is by gradually introducing a sequence or series of steps into the routine. This helps the child focus on one thing at a time and helps him slowly build on the previous steps until it becomes a complete series of steps. These essential routines help the child acquire the essential life skills needed to adjust to and fit in his surroundings and be independent.
Here are a few tips to reduce anxiety when there is a change in routine:
Helping your child deal with anxiety can be challenging but so is preparing them to deal with a world they can’t entirely control, and striking a balance can be crucial. Too much unmanaged stress can be difficult to handle, but if we’re never exposed to it at all, we never learn to deal with it – and that ‘exercise’ is sometimes best done in a loving home with parents who can provide comfort and reassurance as well as a bit of variety.
So, let’s say that you want to make a change in the routine. How do you introduce it with minimum pain for all concerned? The best thing to do is to make things as clear as possible.
Use visual supports to explain what’s going to happen. Pictures of new places, written lists, ‘now and next’ boards, calendars: all make it easy to literally ‘see’ what’s going to happen.
If you put the information where they can look at it and take it in their own time, that may be a lot more comfortable for them.
If you’re going somewhere new, let them have a look at it in advance. Drive through the area, and if possible let them come in for a visit during a quiet period (for instance, visit a new school after hours so there aren’t so many other children making things overwhelming). That way they’ll have at least some idea what the ‘unknown’ will be, and hopefully they’ll start to accept that it won’t be anything terrible.
Use social stories. Tell the same story a few times in advance to help them do what’s often
so difficult for them to do unaided: imaginatively rehearse what’s going to happen.
Prepare them for changes with a timer. A stopwatch or an app can give them a nice clear countdown. If they know that, say, you’re going to leave the house when the timer goes off, they’ll have some time to get used to the idea.
Make back-up plans. Sometimes things change unexpectedly, so try not to get left with too much unstructured time if a plan falls through: bring toys, books, music etc to fill the time, or have a second-choice place to go. In making these plans, think about ways to calm a nervous child as well, such as breathing exercises, or bring along a favourite comfort object or sensory toy.
Praise, reward, reinforce. If your child follows a new routine or copes with an unexpected change, that’s a real achievement for them: tell them so, and if verbal praise isn’t enough to make the point, give a small tangible reward as well.
One of the best ways to cope with anything is making them feel proud and get approval if they do it. Make it worth their while and reward them.