All over the world, people’s regular routines have been disrupted in impactful ways, due to the restrictions in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus. We're all doing our best to adapt to working from home, canceling plans and rescheduling, but the fact is, we're living in a time filled with unknowns and clouded by an ever-present sense of uncertainty. Many of us are learning to cope, while some of us are even finding ways to thrive in our ‘new normal’. However, there's a group who will be finding the disruption to routine especially difficult. Autism and routine come hand in hand, and autistic children cope best when they're aware of what's happening and when, with the knowledge they can rely on those plans not changing. With plans up in the air, how can you best facilitate a new daily routine for an autistic child?
The Link between Autism and Routine
First, let’s explore what makes routine so crucial to children with ASD. Typically, those with ASD display behavioral patterns and activities that tend to be repetitive, with levels of restriction and resistance to change. Examples may include needing to eat foods in a specific order at a particular time or needing things to be put in particular places. Individuals with ASD rely on a predictable routine for a sense of existential comfort and to manage anxiety. So, when these routines are disrupted or changed, even on a minuscule level, it can send the individual spiraling and also trigger distressing meltdowns. If your child struggles with this, our blog post on preventing meltdowns in children with autism is an excellent resource with tips to help you.
The effects of lock-down and shelter-in-place restrictions have meant that overnight, children stopped going to school or extracurricular activities. They can no longer see their friends or extended family, and their whole daily routine has completely changed. Not only is it challenging to explain the reasoning behind this change in routine to a child with ASD, but it can also be challenging to find ways to reassure them and help them to adapt to an entirely new routine in the home. That’s why we're sharing four strategies to equip you when it comes to navigating autism and routine when social distancing.
1) Establish a Morning Routine
How the day begins can set the tone for the rest of the day. By starting the day with a steady routine, your child is less likely to start the day with a tantrum. The goal is to keep as much of your child’s routine the same as before lock-down began. For example, wake your child up at the same time they would wake up for school and follow the same morning routine when it comes to getting dressed and breakfast time. This helps keep some semblance of normalcy for your child.
2. Use Timetables and Schedules
A great way to help your child with ASD adjust to a new routine is to create a schedule that you stick to every day. It could be visual with stickers or a simple chart, depending on your child’s preferences. Having a plan for each day that is repeated creates a new sense of comfort and predictability for your child.
Even if you can’t go out, your child knows that while they are at home, there's a routine on which to rely. After breakfast, when you would usually take your child to school, bring the schedule out and look at it together, breaking down the tasks and activities and the order they will be in. If there has to be a change in plan on a certain day, this is the time to give your child plenty of notice and explain how this will look different from normal. Seeing the schedule in front of them will help your child process the layout of the day.
You could plan the day to look as similar as possible to their schedule at school by liaising with their teacher(s) or tailor your plan to meet your child’s home needs as closely as possible. For example, you could intersperse some of these top 10 sensory activities for autism between schoolwork tasks to keep your child engaged and calm. Alternatively, you could explore ways of integrating a sensory diet for autism into your daily routine.
3. Reward Flexibility
While we're all dealing with uncertainty and being agile to adapt frequently, there will inevitably be times where the new routine for your child will have to change. This can be daunting for parents of children with ASD because they fear triggering a meltdown through any changes to the plan. One way to reduce the stress of this situation is to re-frame flexibility as a positive trait by rewarding your child when they handle a change of plan calmly and openly. This is something that can take a long time for an autistic child to master, and clear and gentle communication is vital. Rewards could include a task or snack that your child always enjoys - just be mindful of how you integrate this into their day so as not to cause more disruption to the daily plan.
Sensory experiences serve as fun, engaging activities and also have calming benefits - the perfect reward for flexibility! You could create a portable sensory corner at home as a universal space for rewarding flexibility as well as a calming space to cool off if your child gets distressed. If you're not sure where to start, check out our sensory corner bundle. If you don't have space for a whole sensory corner, why not start with a few key items such as a bubble tube or explore our range of sensory at home products.
These 7 calming strategies for autism are also useful to keep up your sleeve!
4. Remember Baby Steps
When a routine completely changes, it can overwhelm a child with autism. Of course, lock-down and shelter-in-place measures are outside of your control, so don’t be discouraged if your child struggles to adapt at first. Just like you, they're doing their best and, by staying calm, you can reassure them by creating your own fun schedule. If you can, make any further changes a little at a time to give your child a chance to adapt without getting too stressed by everything happening at once.
There are also simple tools you can use to ease your child into their new rhythm. For example, setting a timer for each activity allows your child to monitor how long they have before they change tasks, so it’s less of a disruption when they move on to a new task.
Above all, be kind to yourself when navigating autism and routine. Creating a daily routine for an autistic child can be exhausting, and you’re doing a wonderful job!