Routines and your young child with ASD

Routine and intense restriction to established patterns is one of the most characteristic behaviors associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and establishing and sticking to routines in positive ways can be one of the best ways for families to support children with ASD. Supporting positive routines can help children feel calm and secure in their understanding of their environment. Just like in any family, though, it’s also possible to fall into routines that aren’t structured in a way that helps families out, so it can be helpful to take a look at your family’s routines now and then to make sure they’re structured in the best way they can be.

Making routines one of your family’s strengths

Since “repetitive behavior” is listed as a symptom of ASD, it can feel like following routines is the wrong way to relate to a child’s ASD diagnosis. But while there are some habits, rituals, and routines that families do better without, and eventually have to root out of their lives, the problem isn’t the fact of the routine, it’s the details of that specific one. In fact, having a robust series of routines can help your family run smoothly, and can actually eventually help to encourage flexibility when it’s needed.

One way to help transitions work for your family is to start early with big, easy-to-see markers for warnings of transitions from one activity or part of the day to another. Markers like timers and clocks are great. Schedules that show pictures to correspond with different activities can be great as well, and can be used as tools for adjusting schedules in the future. Young children won’t know what these things mean at first, of course, but if their purpose is consistently explained, they can help to keep changes and schedule adjustments from feeling overwhelming or unexpected.

Some families find that they can help their children make the connection between these pictures and the moments in their families’ routines – and have fun doing it! – by taking pictures of their children brushing their teeth, getting ready for bed, or eating lunch, and using those pictures in their visual schedules.

Having visuals to explain schedules and transitions before they happen can also help to prepare young children for changes in their schedules, especially as they grow older. Getting started establishing this shared “language” for schedules, times, and routines can help your family set up the building blocks for easier changes in the future.

Altering routines that become a problem

It can be easy to fall into routines, and hard to adjust them once they’re set, so every now and then, it’s important to take a look at your family’s routines and take stock of whether they’re making your family life easier or harder. If one routine is hard enough to stick to (or unrealistic to maintain), that it’s causing your child more stress, it may be time to try to work on encouraging flexibility around it, or even changing it. On the other hand, if a routine makes your family life easier, or makes your child feel safer or calmer, it’s worth figuring out the best way to keep this routine as a strong part of your home-life.

When it comes to making changes, young children with ASD may do better with gradual changes than with a cold-turkey switch away from an established routine. If you’ll be switching the location of one of your common, day-to-day activities, you can help your child feel more comfortable with this change by doing a short “practice” visit, or even by showing him a picture or video of the space, instead of springing somewhere new on him all at once.

In the end, there’s no definitive answer about how to handle the routines that tend to crop up in the lives of families with autistic members – and in all families. Anyone can fall into habits, some of which are better or worse for day-to-day functioning, and neurotypical children can also benefit from building strong, healthy routines. In general, there’s usually a way to use routines to build healthy habits, and to help families run more smoothly.

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