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Top 5 tips on how to Create a Routine for a Child with Autism

Top 5 tips on how to Create a Routine for a Child with Autism

For a child with dysregulated sensory processing the world can feel like a very unpredictable, overwhelming and scary place.  This can make even the simplest of transitions, changes or demands a huge struggle.  

Creating routines and daily structures for young people with Autism and/or sensory processing disorder can remove some of the unpredictability and bring a framework of stability.  This can in turn help give them a safer space within which to navigate some of the sensory challenges they have to overcome every time they change environment or take on a new activity.

I don’t know about you, but we really struggled with all the daily transitions, particularly around leaving the house for different activities.  From health appointments, to shopping trips, to days at school/college, and even for fun activities, leaving the house and getting into the car, navigating the different clothing required for different weathers and seasons - we would just get used to long sleeve and trousers it seemed and then the weather would roll around and we would have to start work on getting used to short sleeves and trousers!  Literally, no activity or change of pace was ever completely straightforward, no matter how we planned and prepared.  Over time we became better at creating the routines and structures that improved our chances of success.

Why does routine help an Autistic child?

Having structure to the day gives it stability and order.  Activities being measured by time means they have a clear start and end.  This makes life more predictable and therefore comforting.  A calmer home means less conflict and stress for everyone.  The more routines and habit, the lower the levels of verbal demands from parents.  This makes it easier for the young person to take part, co-operate and experience success, and reduces escalation into crisis and distress.  In the bigger picture it means we are encouraging independence, and building on everyday life skills, this sets our young people up for better emotional wellbeing.

Guide on how to set up routines and schedules

1. Preparation and thinking time

Look at how each day naturally flows.  Sketch them out.  School days are usually quite different from weekends and holidays.  What is the ideal flow for your family for the different types of days?  

Once you have the general rhythm of the day, break it down.  What tasks are involved in each step of the day.  Is your young person independent already with those tasks?  If not, break each down into mini steps so you can focus on building one tiny skill at a time.

Consider the practicalities.  This isn’t just about what your child needs, also how do siblings fit in, and what do you need as a parent? 

Which activities will give opportunities to do things together, and where do you want to encourage independence?  What are the priorities for learning skills? What are the important things that have to happen every single day? You will need time to cook for example, so can that be made into an activity you do together, or is it better to schedule an activity in which your child can be independent and within view while you are cooking?  It needs to work as well as possible for all of you.

Don’t forget to think about your natural energy levels - consider what times of day you and your child are at your best.  Put trickier activities in the places where you are likely to both be in a ‘good place’ if possible.

2. Creating the schedule

Once you have completed all the preparation you will feel the schedules coming together.  Resist the temptation to overfill – make sure you balance downtime and give some processing time after anything challenging.

Generally schedules work better if they are simple and visual – you can use photos or symbols, or words and numbers, even photos of the child completing the tasks as encouragement.  

Does your child understand time, the structure of the week, months and year?  For some young people you will need to simply start with ‘Now’ and ‘Next’ and that will be enough to begin working on.  Some young people will be happy to look at a whole day at a time, and some are ok with a whole week.  Take their lead, it’s always better to go slow and steady than to overwhelm.

How much rigid structure does your child prefer?  Do they respond better to flexibility?  If you are not sure, the best option is to have a more rigid structure around the things that must happen every day, and then perhaps zones of ‘choosing time’ where they might be given options they can choose from.  For some children choosing is a nightmare, if that is the case keep the choosing options to a minimum to encourage them to gain confidence with this over time.

Think about how tasks are organised, if there is something very challenging it can be good to put it in between preferred or calming activities such as sensory play.

3. Breaking it down

Don’t forget to consider every tiny step. A child with executive functions issues, ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism or similar conditions may not naturally think of aspects around a task, both practical – like getting things out and putting them away, or with social cues – like being quiet in assembly, or being safe and sensible when cooking.

Think about where you put the boards, schedules and prompts. Where possible you want them in natural places so you aren’t having to scrabble around for things in the moment. So, for example you might have a weekly planner that just shows if it is a school day or home day or if you have visitors or appointments.  Then you might have a daily planner which has times down the side and what tasks will be taking place at what times.

If your child needs prompting you might also have visuals, for example - in the bathroom for the steps of washing and brushing your teeth. These may have a picture of the activity which can be removed when the step activity is completed.  Some children will need a ‘finished’ pouch to put the completed tasks into, so it is really clear.

4. Starting, finishing, and whoops!

Some children may need extra warning and prompting around starting or finishing tasks, like a sand timer or countdown.  This was a big issue for us because of PDA so we had to get inventive and work on being extremely patient (easier said than done!).

We had Whoops!  And Surprise! cards to cover the inevitable unexpected changes.  We found our young man could cope if he saw them being changed on the calendars or prompts, or if we wrote down what was happening instead on a pad.

5. Reinforcement and celebration

Think of ways your child can be involved to mark off achievements and make it easy for them to use. Introduce choosing to help them feel like they have some autonomy.  This is a good place to involve the young person as there may be a certain movie or activity they would like to put in during the week, or work towards as a reward?  Some children are really motivated by sticker charts and rewards, some will just rip them up and sprinkle them…. As with everything, you are the expert on your child. Start small and build up until they feel successful. Be generous with the reinforcement and praise, keep working on consistency and practice. Be compassionate with your child but also with yourself. This isn’t easy, especially if, like me, you are resistant to routine yourself.

Keep the pressure down – remember it is not the end of the world if we do not manage to complete everything every day. Sometimes when times are too overwhelming keep the bare bones of the routine in place but allow plenty of chill, play and connect time. What your child will benefit from most is getting to spend loving time with you and family members whenever it’s possible.

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