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How to Handle Switching Routines for a Child on the Spectrum

Everyone knows how important routine is. Routines help keep you organized and calm and reduce stress. Routines allow you to engage successfully in activities because you can predict what will happen. Routine is comforting. However, change is inevitable, and it is important to learn how to properly handle change.

A lot of children I work with have poor coping skills. This makes change extremely hard as they are unable to properly calm themselves when they become agitated. Life is full of uncertainty and unexpected events. Here are some ways to help your child prepare for change.

Give Cues

The first tool I like to use is to cue your child change is going to happen. Initially, this is important as you can help improve ways for your child to cope. For example, when a child is playing with a toy and does not want to stop, I use a timer to let them know when it is time to stop. Now, this does not miraculously work the first time you do it. However, repetition and consistency are key to helping your child understand that it is ok for change to happen. If you are consistent, your child will start to improve their ability to change.

Sing A Transition Song

Why do we all know the clean-up song? Why do commercials use catchy little jingles? Your auditory system hears songs as a way to help calm and organize you. Music is an amazing tool, it has the ability to impact your mood. If you are tired, you might turn the music up and listen to fast-paced music to help you stay awake. On the contrary, if you are awake and want to go to sleep, you might put on soothing music. I have not been blessed with a singing voice and can’t carry a tune to save my life. That does not stop me from singing to all my kids during therapy (for some reason they don’t mind, but my own children do). The act of singing has stopped tantrums, helped children learn how to cut with scissors, and even play with Play-Doh. You can make up a song on the spot. Use a familiar tune. I sing “This is the way we roll out the Play-Doh, roll out the Play-Doh, roll out the Play-Doh, this is the way we roll out the Play-Doh. Good job (child’s name)”. For scissors, I sing “open, shut them, open, shut them. Give a little cut, cut, cut” So many children sing that song and it cues them to open and shut the scissors. When working on a therapy ball, I will sing ABC’s, Row Row Row Your Boat, or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This helps your child understand how long you will be participating in an activity. The song acts as a timer. They know when the song is over, it is time to stop whatever you are doing. This is a great way to help your child transition from one activity to the next.

Visual Schedule Board

I inform parents that they should utilize a visual board to help their children prepare for the day. The board can have pictures that show each activity. Having a visual of what is going to happen helps prepare them for change. For example, Monday you can place a few items on their schedule: breakfast, handwriting, snack, arts & crafts, therapy ball, etc. After a few days, switch one of the activities on the board. As your child tolerates the change, reward them and praise them. Every few days, switch the routine. This will help your child tolerate change.

Prepare Them For Success

I always start slowly and build a child’s confidence prior to making the activity more challenging. I want the child I am working with to feel successful and confident. Following this example, I will have a highly motivational toy ready. When switching from a task, I make sure the new task is more preferred. It could be their favorite book, toy, or even snack. Again, I encourage parents to praise their children for switching the activity. After a few days of working on a more preferred item, try the switch to an activity that is not as preferred. Praise your child in the same way you did for the preferred activity.

Teach Coping Strategies

The ability to be aware of your emotions is a very difficult concept. To be able to regulate your emotions is even more advanced. Help your child be aware of a situation that makes them upset, and then teach them which calming techniques to apply. For example, if your child is going to get a haircut and you know that this is upsetting, have them use calming techniques such as deep breathing, deep pressure (body hugs or hand squeezing), or using tactile toys such as a stress ball or chewlery (jewelry that is safe to bite). Have your child repeat these techniques a few times. This will help calm and regulate your child.

Change is hard for everybody; however, it is especially hard for children on the spectrum. Being aware and understanding will help you be ready to help your child. As you practice these skills, you will see your child grow and be able to tolerate transitions more easily.

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