How to help your child with routine changes

Oh, boy. Changes in routine. If you’re the parent of a child with autism, the mere idea of routine changes likely drives your stress levels upward, doesn’t it?

If you agree, you’re not alone. Changes in activities that your child has come to expect can definitely contribute to your child’s stress, and yours. Kids with autism appreciate routines and rituals and their lives, and when those routines are disrupted, we need to know how to help our child manage their emotions and thoughts around those changes.

Some of the most common changes that might affect your daily routines are what time you leave the house in the morning, or going someplace new. It could be introducing a new doctor, dentist, or babysitter. It could be bringing in new foods to the house, or having to wear new clothes because the old ones just don’t fit anymore. It could be doing things in a different order, like cleaning up the toy room first before taking a bath. It could be shifting attention between activities, or having to cancel activities because of something unexpected, like bad weather or another unexpected circumstance.

The thing is, changes and transitions are inevitable in life, and we may be comfortable with changes, but our children may not – so it’s on us to help them cope, so that throughout their lives, when those inevitable changes occur, they’re a little more prepared.

Here are some tips on how we can do just that.

Give them time. There are three ways of giving your child time: the use of timers, using timetables, and literally giving them extra time.

Timers help your child understand that there are limits to how long they can engage in a particular activity. They can also help as a signal that it’s time to do something else, like leaving the house, or getting in the car, or going to bed.

Timetables are schedules, and can be as decorative, creative, or elaborate as your child wants. Timetables will help your child know what to expect, and when to expect them. When changing routines, you can switch out the timetable together, so your child feels as though they’re part of the change. In some situations where exact times aren’t ideal (for example, you may not know what time a doctor’s appointment is actually going to end), you can write “after doctor’s appointment,” rather than, say, 2 p.m.

In some cases that you can tell that your child is particularly anxious, more of your time is a gift.
If you’re switching jobs and you know that you’ll have to leave earlier in the morning, you may be able to find an extra 30 minutes at the end of the day just to be with your child.

New places, new spaces. Before going to a new place, visit that new place! Here’s an example. If you’ve switched dentists, visit the dentist’s office before your child’s actual appointment and ask if your child can meet the staff, see the waiting room, or even sit in the dentist’s chair. This way, your child can familiarize themselves with the “new” place, and it won’t be so new, or scary, next time.

Social stories. Telling stories are a great way to teach your child what might happen in a way they’re more likely to understand. By using pictures or words, you can describe what’s probably going to happen. For example, if you’re going to a new school, you can describe leaving the house, the paths you’ll take to get there, what room you’ll go to first, the people you’ll meet. End the story on a positive note, and reassure your child of the positivity of this new experience.

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