Most families affected by autism of any ilk are familiar with the need for routine. At times, their ASD family member’s need for routine may come across as frustratingly rigid, leading to difficulties with ever being spontaneous or doing things in a new or different manner. My autism spectrum father had many many routines, including one for making his afternoon glass of ice tea. First he turned on the faucet to start the cold water running so it would be getting cold. Then he measured out the instant tea and sugar with measuring spoons and put the precise amounts into the glass. Then he filled the glass part way up with water from the faucet. Then he added 5 ice cubes from the ice cube dispenser, and stirred. Lastly he filled up the rest of the glass with water from the refrigerator door dispenser, and then added a squirt of lemon juice from one particular kind of bottled lemon juice. He did it the same way every single time. As his memory worsened with age and dementia, he could no longer remember the exact perfect mixture of mix, sugar and lemon juice, and although I tried to show him he could up with something very close by following the instructions on the jar, he preferred to just give it up and not drink ice tea anymore.
I have seen that routines can truly help an ASD individual feel that the world makes sense, that life is understandable and predictable. Haven’t we all felt that at times, enjoyed the comfort of going through a predictable ritual or routine? Routines can help any of us, ASD or NT, feel calm. One of the things I usually suggest to a family if their child had just had a major meltdown or crisis, is to as soon as possible return to the normal and thus calming routines of the day.
We can use routines to help an autism spectrum child learn skills – and by the way, this emphasis on the use of routines is another part of the TEACCH approach. The earlier you start helpful routines the better – just keep in mind that routines will work best if they can appropriate for many years. I remember teaching one young ASD children when he was quite young a routine for how to answer the phone. When he was about fifteen, he was still using the exact same phrases, but now he had a deep manly voice and those child-like phrases didn’t sound appropriate anymore and we had to quickly re-adjust. One reason to start early with helpful routines, is that if you don’t guide the development of helpful routines, the ASD child will be prone to develop their own, which may be less desirable, such as only bathing once a week, or never doing any school work when not in school.
What would be some examples of helpful routines?
Getting homework done before free time activities.
Taking a bath or shower every day (see my last post).
Helping to clean up the dishes after dinner.
Cleaning the house every Saturday morning.
Joining the family for family time every Sunday afternoon.
These may seem like no-brainers since almost all parents want their children to do homework, bathe, participate in family activities, and help with chores! However, with an NT child, it may not matter quite as much when you do a particular thing. If you just get the house clean at some point over the week, you may be just as successful as if you do it always at the same time. In fact, an NT child might like it better when the routine varies somewhat because it might reduce their boredom. The ASD child will be less likely to like it and cooperate if the plan varies week to week. Instead, if they start certain routines when they are young, they are more likely to continue to follow the plan into the teenage years and even adulthood, then if your family routines are more haphazard.
Question: How have you used routines to help your autism spectrum child?