It’s no secret that children with Autism love routine and repetition. It goes much farther than just a love of routine though, it’s a necessity for them and a part of who they are. In fact, it’s one of the two defining characteristics of Autism in the DSM 5 (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) stated as “restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior.” There is true, data proven positive results that come from a structured controlled home and school setting for kids with Autism. Anxiety levels go down when they know what to expect, independence is gained, and skills and language emerge. We do this methodically and with intention and as a result, they learn not only to function independently, but thrive in their controlled worlds.
So how do we move them out of their controlled worlds? How do we NOT become slaves to their schedule?
We want our kids to be calm and happy and we’ve learned the best way to facilitate that is to structure their world as much as we can. This WOULD work if our world was a sanitized place where things did not change or break, where people did not react unexpectedly, where societal rules didn’t change for different settings…you get the idea. We have to prepare our kids for an ever-evolving world that is unpredictable and messy; one where we know that people can and will surprise us. This why we need to learn to do something I’m calling “Rock the Routine” just as methodically and intentionally as we do when we structure their worlds.
Rock the Routine: Who, What, Where, & When?
Who? The people who work closest with the child and with whom the child has the strongest rapport with.
This is where parents can really make a difference. Teachers have opportunities throughout the school day to practice rocking the routine but we are limited in how much we can facilitate change and introduce new environments. For best results, teachers should get parents and therapists on board with implementing this practice.
What? Our kids are visual learners so to teach anything new, we need to show them.
I have found the best way to introduce this concept in a clear way that is understandable to the child is through the use of a visual schedule. Create a visual way to introduce the concept of change to them. Once the child is familiar with utilizing their visual schedule, you will show them that you are making a change to the normal routine. You can do this by changing out the picture symbol or by covering it up. It’s important that the person controlling the child’s schedule does not hide changes from the child; let them know in advanced that a change is coming. At the beginning of the process, this may cause additional stress to the child knowing something different coming but very quickly they will learn to trust that you will let them know in advanced when there is a change and that they will return to their normal routine afterwards. Kids RESPECT and TRUST adults who speak honestly to them about what is happening.
If you are unable to make your own, here are some of my favorite visual schedule bundles available for purchase:
Where? At school, at home, in the community.
This could be as little of a change as doing instruction at a different table in the classroom or taking a spontaneous walk around the school. Parents should take kids out in the community as much as possible from a young age (use weighted vests, noise reduction headphones, and fidget toys to help with sensory needs). Teachers, I know you have limited places you can take your kids outside of the classroom. I have implemented structured walks that are slightly different from day to day and not always at the expected time as a fun way to introduce change.
(Below are structured walk schedules that I will do spontaneously during the school day, the visual component helps create structure within the change. You can find my structured walk schedules and icons here.)
When? Don’t wait.
If you wait for them to reach mastery in their structured routine before you introduce changes to them, you will likely end up waiting forever. The world is fluid and moving constantly so the sooner the kids are able to grasp this concept in a way that’s meaningful to them, the sooner they will learn to cope with change in routine.
Take it slow. A little bit at a time. Show them that changes can be awesome! Don’t only introduce changes when it’s necessary, like an assembly or doctor’s appointment because then you are pairing changes with high anxiety experiences. Facilitate changes that are positive. For example, show them you are going to a place in school where someone is waiting for them with a toy or candy or have extra recess time at an unexpected time.
Rock the Routine peeps!
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