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With difficulty making sense of their surroundings and feelings of anxiety, children with autism often develop routines and rituals to have some form of order and structure to their lives. Everyday routines such as washing and teeth brushing are generally consistent. There are times, however, when routines change during events such as fire drills, field trips, and special occasions. During times of transition or change, children may be more likely to have tantrums, aggressive behavior, and show resistance. It is important to prepare children for the possibility of change and help them understand the procedures they need to follow during novel situations.
Below are some tips and strategies you can use with your child to form new routines or prepare for changes in existing routines.
1. Priming: Priming is a way to help children preview situations they may struggle with before they occur and helps events become more predictable. There are various approaches that utilize priming to prepare children for new or different routines.
2. Schedules: By using schedules with pictures to visually communicate upcoming events, children can make easier transitions and develop greater independence. It is important to use real pictures and not cartoons (For more on this see: Why Real Photos? What About Cartoons) By having an icon that signifies change, such as a surprised face, children can know to expect changes to their routine and may feel less anxious. Showing and reminding children that there will be changes several days in advance can help them prepare before the shift occurs. Scheduling some extra time in between changes and transitions can also help your child prepare and cope with stress during the new routine.
3. Make Backup Plans: Sometimes planned activities can fall through and cause unpleasant reactions such as disappointment and anger. It is important to have back-up plans and second-choice activities that you can talk through with your child in the event of necessary changes.
4. Praise, Reward, and Reinforce: It is a real achievement when your child is able to follow through with a new routine or deal with unexpected changes. It is easier to cope with fear and anxiety when we know that we will receive social approval for overcoming our emotions. If verbal approval is not enough, you can give your child a small tangible reward to show that you are proud.
Grace Chen is currently pursuing an Ed.M. in Arts in Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has been a teaching artist, curriculum developer, and research assistant focusing on innovative evaluations in out-of-school time programs. She hopes to develop resonant and empowering art programs by partnering with youth in educational research and practice.