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Implementing Flexible or Strict Routines for Autistic Individuals

Routines are extremely important for neurotypical and atypical individuals for many reasons. Routines simplify your day, lay out a plan, and identify the important items that need to be accomplished to be successful. Everyone relies on a routine.

However, when a person who is typical has their day changed or if their routine takes a detour their reaction is to adapt and change, no big deal. For individuals diagnosed with autism, routine changes can create unwanted behaviors, anxiety, and mood changes.

According to Therapeutic Pathways, there is a great deal of research that shows that a predictable routine can help autistic individuals function more independently and improve their overall social-emotional well-being.

Children with autism perceive the world as chaotic with new sounds, sights, textures, and behavior, therefore, routines help make their day predictable. However, helping your child understand that the world is full of change is important too, so do we create strict routines or do we go with the flow?

Pros of Strict Routines

Strict routines provide a safe, calm space for a child which is great! It also promotes positive behavior, and expectations, and brings order to an ever-changing world. Building a strict routine may involve a calender, visual schedule, positive reinforcement charts, rewards, verbal commands (first we do, then we do), etc. Experts say that once a strict routine is implemented and learned then we can start adding in "new" items or events to adapt to. Adding little by little is said to decrease stress levels and promote acceptance of change in a less chaotic manner.

For a strict routine, it's possible to use a visual schedule to lay out what the day entails. They will know what happens at each part of the day and can easily understand the next event in their day.

Pros of Flexible Routines

Routines are amazing, but sometimes they add additional stress especially when autistic individuals rely on that routine. According to Learn Play Thrive, by using such strict routines we can really trigger negative stress effects on autistic individuals if we don't show them that change is okay. We need to incorporate different things during the day to help with change and the importance of coping with change. We need to teach flexibility at the beginning.

There are many ways to go into implementing a flexible routine versus a strict routine. For starters, if your child is using a visual schedule change the order of the everyday tasks therefore it won't be such a rigid routine. If there is a quick change, tell them and interact with them about the change whether it's changing the picture, pressing a button on the AAC device, or just having a conversation with repeated changes verbally spoken. Also, use positive reinforcements to your advantage. "We have to do this, so first we do this and then you can get that or do this".

Again there are many ways you can set up your routine with your child. For my household, flexibility is key. I have two other children who play multiple sports so every day is different. Therefore, from the start Ellis has gone to everything and he loves it. He is great with change in the evening but during the day it varies. He knows that he goes to school and he knows what happens after school and when he comes home from his grandparent's house. He is routine during the weekdays but on the weekends he is a lot more flexible with his stress levels and emotions. Sometimes he surprises me and loves change.

Whatever you choose know that the choice is yours but also be open to advise. You know your child the best!


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