Routine is part of all our lives whether we are aware of it or not. For some of us it is simply the order in which we get dressed or what programmes we watch on TV on a certain night. For others, especially those on the autism spectrum, routine can be fundamental to their everyday existence. For some autistic people simply changing the cup they drink out of, or the route they take to school or work can be catastrophic to their mental wellbeing.

So how do you cope when things HAVE to change?

How do you help a child cope when routine does not go as planned and things happen like school holidays or food packaging changes or a teacher is off sick?

I have two children with autism (and a husband on the pathway to be diagnosed too) so I absolutely understand the very real challenges of daily life when routines change. But even though both my children are very much affected by their autism, and one also has severe learning difficulties, I am working on building resistance in their lives so they can cope when life does not always go to plan.

Here are four ways I have found that help my children. Perhaps they may help your child too.

  1. Using 'first/then' to reassure that while one thing may have changed other things are still 'normal'.

I find this one particularly helpful when it comes to changes in school. For example 'first Mrs Smith teaches you (assuming Mrs Smith is a stand-in teacher covering absence) then lunch. This helps the child understand that while one thing may be different there are other major things that are still the same. This helps them stabilise and ground themselves and process the change of routine. When using this strategy always have the 'then' item as a fixed routine they are especially familiar with in order to calm their anxiety. If possible make it a routine that they enjoy too, such as food or bath time or a bedtime story.

  1. Using countdowns or timers to show that change has a limited time frame.

This strategy works best if you know the change to routine is time-limited such as school holidays or teacher absence. It’s helped my children cope with meals out (a 90-minute timer on the iPad to show when we will return home) as well as trips to soft play and hospital appointments. However there are times when this strategy cannot be used, as if a timer finishes and you have not finished the change to routine you could make matters worse. Children with autism need to feel they can trust you to keep to your word, so only use countdowns for limited occasions such as a holiday when days can be scored off and are set. It can cause more stress and confusion if this is used wrongly and you may have to build up trust with the child all over again.

  1. Use visual timetables to show when a change of routine is expected.

If you already know that at some point in the day the routine will be different to usual, having a visual timetable of events with the 'surprise' symbol added in helps a child with autism see visually that there will be a small factor of change but that everything else will be as expected. It is good to vary the 'surprise' factor between good surprises and things the child may struggle with. I have used it for trips to a toy shop or to the library, but also for unexpected things, such as one day when I took the children to town by train and we suddenly had to come back by bus as the trains were cancelled due to a breakdown.

I have a small 'surprise' symbol in my coat pocket to help them understand if we face diversions or road works too. They may not like it but the symbol does give them a visual pointer to the fact something different is happening but we will get home soon and be ok.

  1. Keep to your own routine and stay calm.

Children learn so much by watching us. Even though both of my children have autism and other difficulties, when we recently had to suddenly up and leave home when a close relative passed away and their whole routine was thrown, they both looked to me to see how to self-regulate. If I was calm, softly spoken and relaxed they responded to that. When they were unsure what was going on they picked up on the fact I was still stopping to eat even if it was at an airport and this helped them to see that sometimes life can suddenly be so different but there are some steadfast things that remain.

Despite the fact I was taking them on a very long journey to somewhere none of us had ever been to they knew they were safe. I also made sure they had their personal comforts with them at all times. For my son this was his iPad and for my daughter this was her comfort cloth.

While away I made sure they ate at roughly the same times as at home and they had baths and bedtime routines in the same way we always do. I bought the same breakfasts and they wore the same familiar clothes. They watched me carry on my routine and remain calm and this prevented either of one them having a huge meltdown.

So, in conclusion:

  • Understand your child and know what is fundamental to their wellbeing. This could be technology, a teddy or a favourite book. Use this when major changes happen to help them realise not everything is changing.
  • Be calm yourself. Children will sense your calm and be responsive to that.
  • If at all possible, use visuals to help them process any changes to routine.
  • If a change to routine is short use timers or countdowns to help the child understand when it will come to an end.
  • Also if a change is short, use 'first/then' so the child is reassured of something familiar and pleasant afterwards.

Change to routine is hard for everyone but also inevitable. It is our job as parents to help our children become more resilient and prepared as much as possible. Meltdowns and shutdowns and anxiety are to be expected but hopefully with time, patience and support your autistic child will grow and develop.

If my children have taught me anything it is this: never underestimate how amazing autistic children can be.

Now please excuse me while I get back to my routine...

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