Coping with Changes in Routines - Autism Awareness
Coping with Changes in Routines

Coping with Changes in Routines

The arrival of summer can mean a change in routine because of the school break, summer camps and activities, a family vacation, visitors, longer lighter days, and more free time. Change can be upsetting for autistic people because it makes things feel new and unpredictable. Changes in routine may require some additional support to make them less upsetting. Some transitions and changes to routines will be known about in advance making it easier to prepare for such as a vacation. Preparing for an upcoming change will provide predictability and lessen anxiety.

Whether it be going somewhere new, doing things in a different order, eating new foods, cancellation of activities, or trying a new activity, there are a number of things you can do to make an autistic person feel more comfortable.

Using Visual Strategies

Using visual strategies to show a change may be more effective and less stressful that giving a verbal explanation or instructions. Visual supports are the cornerstone of communication. They provide structure, routine, consistency and predictability. When a person understands the expectations and knows what to do, they are more independent and confident.

Visual schedules can be used to teach a variety of skills and aren’t just for showing what comes next. We can also create structured activities that show all of the steps for a task including how to start and finish. Not knowing how to start or finish something can cause great anxiety.

Visual supports can take many forms such as symbols, tactile objects, photographs, videos, miniatures, line drawings, or colored pictures. You may have to try several different types to figure out which ones a person prefers and understands best. Different types of visual supports may be used in different situations. To learn more about the versatility of visual supports and how to use them, read this blog post.

Maintaining a Daily Schedule

Try to maintain a daily schedule throughout the summer months. Go through the schedule with the person each morning and highlight any changes that are happening that day. If you have a child that gets upset if something doesn’t start or end at a certain time, use other reference points that are less time specific such as after lunch or before supper. This can be helpful when it is difficult to control time like how long an event will be or what time a visitor will leave.

Visiting Special Attractions

Summer means the opening of special events and seasonal attractions. Visit the website to get as much information as you can about the place or event. Buy tickets ahead of time so that you can skip line ups. See if there are any accommodations made for exceptional needs. Look at photos of the venue. Print out a map and circle things on it. Plan your day and make a list of what you’ll see first, second etc. Pack food and snacks if you’re not sure what will be available to eat. Take time for breaks and quiet moments.

Social Stories

Social stories can be a great way to let a person know what’s going to happen and what the behavioral expectations are in a social situation. These stories are sometimes called social scripts, social narratives or story-based interventions. Do keep in mind that social stories might be less effective for children with poor comprehension skills.

Social stories explicitly point out the details about a setting, things that typically happen in that setting, and the actions and behaviors that are typically expected from children in that setting. You can use pictures, words, or a combination of both to create a social story.

Creating Flexibility through Small Changes

Learning to be flexible can be practiced in a number of ways. Start with small changes. Introduce enough of a change to give an achievable challenge, but not too much that it causes a person to feel overwhelmed and want to disengage. A few ideas for introducing change are:

  1. Change the routine order occasionally. Swap a visual around on the visual schedule. Ex. Change the day for a certain activity. Making these changes can also be used to make a choice. Being able to choose is another important life skill and something we do daily.
  2. Make a physical change. This could be changing the location of a piece of furniture or where an object is in a room.
  3. Introduce a new activity into the routine. There may be a struggle when this is introduced initially and engagement time is shorter. Consider putting this change into the visual schedule.
  4. Prepare for those unexpected moments. Things in life don’t always go to plan but that doesn’t mean it has to be a disaster. Create intentional challenges for regular activities that can help teach the skills needed to respond to challenges and become more flexible when things don’t go according to plan. For example, set the table but forget a utensil.  Give the wrong item. This can also encourage the asking for help skill.
  5. Explain what is happening. Sometimes, the reason for rigid behavior is because a person doesn’t understand what is going on around them. Take the time to explain other people’s actions and the reasons for them.

Allow Extra Time

It can take some time to process the information around a change. Try not to rush things, move step by step, and provide explanations of what is going on through visual supports. For example, when my two autistic children had a summer job for 9 years at a Farmer’s Market, they were always very anxious on the first day of  season so we arrived earlier and went through all of their jobs again at a slow pace.

Coping with change and building flexibility takes time. There are many factors that impact flexibility ranging from anxiety or stress to sensory challenges. The best way to increase flexibility is to build opportunities to practice in natural ways throughout the day. Be a good role model yourself and demonstrate how you deal with change and the unexpected. Show that changes are do-able and don’t ruin everything, or are not such a bad thing. Sometimes the unexpected can be the most enjoyable and memorable!

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