— Blog

Autism Series Part VI: “Her Excellency” the routine

Rita: Have you ever had deja-vu? Phil: Didn’t you just ask me that? My favorite quote from the Bill Murray movie “Groundhogs Day”. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a 90’s movie about a news reporter who is stuck in a world where he wakes up on the same morning, day after day. Groundhogs Day. It’s a classic. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to my family’s own version of Groundhogs Day. We call her “Her Excellency, the Routine.” The Routine became a member of our family over 10 years (Wow-she’s older than two of our children, I’ll have to remember that the next time we vote on a restaurant for dinner ☺) We call The Routine “Her Excellency”, because she rules everyone all of the time. Let me give you an example, just last week we had an important decision to make about letting our kids participate in something that would keep them up way past their bed time for several nights in a row, and would have required a significant adjustment to our family schedule for the entire week. We respectfully consulted with the Routine and she ruled in favor of practicality and consistency (she tends to have the better judgement than we do and we’ve never been steered wrong). We decided that although it would have been a fun activity for the kids, the impact on our schedule, the children’s lack of sleep, and the several additional hours of driving time for us as parents would be too big of a sacrifice and change in our routine. So we passed on the opportunity. The Routine is predictable, monotonous and boring most of the time, but our family would not function without it. We have a routine in the morning, after school and bed time. It is very specific and clear and everyone in the family knows when, where and what they should be doing for the majority of the day. I have a few minutes each day to rebel against “Her Excellency” while I’m at work, but when those kiddo’s step off the bus it’s back to The Routine. Regardless of how much we hate it some days, having a structured, routine for our children is an absolute must. As foster parents for 5 years, my wife and I have had over 100 children in our home, several of whom were on the Autism spectrum. We’ve learned that organization and structure leads to improved obedience, improved school performance, and improved behavior. Organization breeds obedience. A few times a year, we take breaks from our routine during holidays and long weekends. We want our children and foster children to experience having a normal family life and forget for a few days that they are in foster care. These few weeks a year that we “wing it” are an absolute blast, we allow the epic all day pillow fights and let the boys stay up late playing video games. Eventually, all of our children become overwhelmed, anxious and frustrated. Stepping out of our routine is fun and I’m not saying you can’t have all day pillow fights, they just come at a cost. Children with ASD think and act in very literal and concrete terms. It can be challenging for them to go through their day not knowing what is coming next or when the next “thing” starts. Transitions from one activity to another can be difficult because they cause anxiety, and are common “melt down” times

Creative scheduling charts

A great way to reduce your child’s frustration and anxiety is through the use of Scheduling Charts. This help them establish a consistent schedule and routine throughout the day. The more structured and consistent their schedule is, the more comfortable your child will feel while transitioning through their day. A visual daily calendar like this one, helps your child better understand the process of what comes first, second, third etc. and when your child can break away and have fun. For our boys with ASD, this helps them develop a concrete understanding of the natural order to the day. Now, it may not be a big deal to the rest of us what order we get dressed, brush our teeth or put on our shoes, but to young children with ASD these simple unknown expectations can be the source of major anxiety. This might be for several reasons, but research suggests that children with ASD need self-soothing stimuli. If they are in the middle of a self-soothing activity, it is especially difficult to stop, especially not knowing if the next activity will be soothing or cause them additional anxiety. By adding a schedule and specific routine, it provides your child with consistency and safety, which over time decreases their anxiety. My daughter loves princesses, crowns, and dress ups. Here’s an example of a chart that works great for her. At the end of the day, if each item is checked off she earns a small treat. At the end of the week, if she’s completed 5 out of 7 days, she earns another reward. We change this chart every few weeks, based on the items that she is working on or when her interests change. Now, If she ever wants a One Direction Chart, so help me… It’s helpful to personalize the schedule to your child. If they like cars, transformers, or have a favorite TV show, create that specific chart to motivate them. A word to the wise, the younger the child the less time the schedule should cover. For many young children with ASD, it may be difficult for them to conceptualize the entire day. Breaking up the schedule into smaller periods of time is helpful and less overwhelming. In fact you may need to do two or three charts. One for the morning routine, one for the afternoon routine, and one for the evening routine. It’s helpful to your child if they earn a small reward when they finish one of their charts. (See Effective Praise… See Effective Praise… See Effective Praise…) Having your child help in making the chart and making suggestions for rewards is a great way to get them on board. They will be much more likely to use the chart if they are somehow emotionally invested. That emotional investment is further cemented by EFFECTIVE PRAISE.

“Visual lessons help me most. I need to see something to learn it, because spoken words are like steam to me; they evaporate in an instant, before I have a chance to make sense of them. Things that I can see I can carry them with me and look at them when I need to.” It may take some time for your son or daughter to get the hang of it, but stick with it and you will notice them checking their charts each day and transitioning through each phase with less anxiety. “Visual lessons help me most. I need to see something to learn it, because spoken words are like steam to me; they evaporate in an instant, before I have a chance to make sense of them. Things that I can see I can carry them with me and look at them when I need to.”

Attention parents

This will make your day to day job SO much easier and you’ll hopefully spend more time enjoying time with your child instead of fighting or forcing them through transitions. One concern we hear a lot from parents is “My child struggles transitioning from video games”. If you’ve said this, you are not alone! Let’s be honest, video games are really fun and can be even more addicting. Children struggle turning them off, because they are having a blast drifting with the “car of their dreams” or saving the planet from brain sucking zombies. Another reason adding to the struggle, is not knowing or understanding when they will be able to play again. So, here’s a suggestion. Take a picture of their game console or ipad and add that picture to their daily chart. Here’s a free tip; Place the console picture after a picture of a chore or study hour, something difficult that they may not do on their own. This helps them understand that their video game time is coming each day, but they might need to earn it by doing something less fun i.e. homework, chores etc.

Follow through

This is also a must. Once your child reaches his/her video game time (or whatever reward they have chosen for completing said difficult task), you must follow through and allow them time to play. The daily chart will have no value for them if it does not help them access what they want. Besides, they’ve earned it. Your children will be much more likely to turn it off the next time and complete their homework, knowing that they will be able to play the next day at the same time. Remember, the reason for your child’s reluctance or inability to transition from one activity to another is likely two fold. First- they don’t understand what is coming next, and, second the current activity may be very soothing to them. That lack of understanding and unpredictability is often a motivating factor as to why your child acts out. Let us know if you have more ideas or other ways parents can help their child deal with transitions and schedules!

Why charts or token economy systems don’t work

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “the token systems never last for more than a few weeks” or “my child gets bored too easily with charts”. The problem lies in the fact that the reward MUST change often. Imagine if each time your child puts his plate away he earns a small tootsie roll. He does really well the first few meals and looks forward to the high five from dad and the tootsie roll afterwards. Well after three or four times of putting his plate away and earning a treat, the tootsie roll doesn’t taste as good as it did a few days ago. Your son isn’t motivated by the tootsie roll or the high five anymore, and as long as that’s the only reward, he doesn’t have any intrinsic reason to put his plate away. Their interests DO change every few weeks, so we need to change things up with them. Parents-this takes work, but it’s worth it. One more reason charts and systems fall apartPARENTS. As parents, we’re naturally loving, kind and forgiving. Parents tend to fall back into old habits of being overly kind or rewarding when they see their children trying. This leads to parents no longer fully requiring their child to work through the chart each day. Another reason, as parents we are super busy and this lends itself to giving our children breaks or short cuts on their charts because we simply don’t have enough time. Remember, as long as your child is accessing what they want, they may not have a reason to change. Before I end, I’ve seen token economy systems work for some parents of autism for several years. To make it work, it takes dedication and discipline early on. Once the token system is firmly in place, and the children’s behavior is their only form of currency, they will change and adapt in order to meet their parent’s expectations, because that is how they access what they want. This is the ultimate reward, to challenge your child to learn something new and then to see them do it. The feeling is remarkable.


Autism series part I: Demystifying the Autism Diagnosis

Autism series part II: what to expect after an official ASD diagnosis

Autism series part III: Guide to choosing an ASD treatment option for your child

Autism series part IV: four natural ways to treat Autism with medication and natural supplements.

Autism series part V: sometimes kids just blow up

Autism series part VI: “Her Excellency” the routine

Autism series part VII: The argument against Gluten-free diets

Autism series part VIII: Treating Autism with therapy pets
Autism series part IX: Reaching through the barriers of Autism with communication
Autism series part X: Creating the right treatment plan for your child