One of the diagnostic criteria for ASDs is difficulty with changes in routine. Therefore it is not surprising that if you change the driving route you take from one place to another that your ASD child may get anxious or frustrated. Routines help ASD children (and all of us, at times) feel safe and secure. Since many ASD children feel overwhelmed by a confusing world that they can’t predict or understand, then doing things the same way every time reduces a little of that chaos. However, we know that even if we try to follow the familiar and comforting routine it doesn’t always work out and sometimes we have to make a change. The reasons can be anything from needing to run an extra errand, to road construction, or just a desire on your part to do things a little differently! I recommend making changes in routines now and then just to help your child learn to tolerate change. If you always stick to the child’s routine, then she doesn’t get any experience of being outside of the comfort zone. Learning that one can survive getting out of the comfort zone, and that nothing terrible happens when the alternate route is taken, is the main way that anxiety gets reduced over time. However, as my readers know who are struggling with this issue, we want to do this in small doses so that the comfort zone gets gradually expanded, but not in such a big way that it lead to overwhelming meltdowns.
So, what to do? Here are 5 practical tips.
- Try using the child’s visual strengths to help her tolerate a route change. Use maps, navigational devices, little drawings that you make on a pad of paper, to show the route change. Show the usual route and then show the route you are going to take instead, and why, such as “this route works when we go straight home from Grandma’s house; this route works when we go by the gas station on the way home from Grandma’s.” Do this BEFORE a route change. The child might even be able to help you plan it out using the map. This takes some extra time up front, but it may be worth it if it reduces your child’s distress and helps her make sense of what is happening.
- Use your visual schedule. If you usually go straight home from the grocery store, and this time you are going by the bank first, make sure to add that in to the visual schedule. Make sure your child can see when in the schedule he is next doing something that he enjoys (such as being home, or doing a preferred activity). Tie your visual schedule into your reward system – such as each item that gets completed on the visual schedule earns tokens or points on your reward system that get cashed in later. You can try using photos in your visual schedule of common stops you have to make when you are out.
- Use rewards for tolerating route changes. If you child can sometimes tolerate doing one activity when you are out doing errands, but can’t tolerate two activities, then adjust your reward system so that she earns a token in her reward system for doing two. Just make sure to offer this BEFORE you do the two activities, and don’t offer it once any acting out has begun, because otherwise you will be rewarding the acting out.
- Have a good supply of distraction items and comfort items with you so that your child can either distract herself with a handheld game or a book or a toy, or comfort herself with her favorite stuffed animal or soft blanket. You can also use your sound system in the car to play relaxing or very distracting music (how about something you can both sing aloud to?), or a book that is being read aloud and being in the car is the only time she gets to listen to it, so that maybe she can start looking forward to being in the car.
- Teach relaxation skills. When the child is not scared, have him practice different types of relaxation skills such as deep breathing, visualizing a safe place, progressive muscle relaxation. If you are not sure how to teach this, if you have an iPod you can download guided relaxations from iTunes, or watch ones on YouTube to get the basic idea. There are also some great resources at Stress Free Kids. Once the child knows how to use this skill when he don’t need it (that is, he can demonstrate it when he is not afraid), then remind him to use the skill when he is afraid, such as when riding in the car or dealing with a route change. If you have a relaxation exercise on an iPod or on a CD, then set it up so you can play this one while in the car. This works best though if your child has already listened to it and practiced it, because then just hearing it played again can trigger the relaxation response.
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