Strict routines are a common feature for families with an autistic member. However, the benefits of routines are not just limited to people living with this condition. Psychologists recommend routines for everyone as they are associated with lower stress levels, better health and better sleep. But routines are all the more important for autistic children and adults. In fact, they suffer more when routines are not observed. Why?

Benefits of routines

Routines provide a sense of structure and stability to autistic individuals, which in turns help them cope with everyday life. In fact, one of the key evidences that support the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an insistence on sameness. Generally, they don’t have an easy time adjusting to changes.

A deviation from one’s routine may cause some anxiety in many people. However, for an autistic child, the effect could be multiplied, and the reaction may be enormous anxiety and even meltdowns. These include changes in minute details such as the placement of items, or the order in which certain foods are taken. While it is believed that there is a neurological basis for it, there is still little understanding of the reason why this symptom exists.

When viewed positively, routine doesn’t have to be a bad thing for anyone, autistic or not. Both children and adults with ASD make use of routine or repetitive behaviors that seem oddly obsessive to comfort and calm themselves. It is their way to self-regulate and calm an otherwise anxious mind, and that’s a good thing. 

Dealing with changes

Unfortunately, as life would have it, changes are bound to occur. For instance, you may have to cancel a routine activity like going to the park with your child because of bad weather. Or you may have your friends or a member of your extended family visiting your house. The problem lies here, because children with ASD are unable to cope with such changes without help.  Parents of autistic children must therefore learn how to manage such situations and prepare for them. 

Won’t following a strict routine make the child even more rigid and incapable of adjusting to unavoidable changes? Not at all; reinforcing routines where possible actually helps autistic children deal with the unavoidable changes. The feeling of well-being and stability that they achieve from consistent routine will make it easier for them to handle those unavoidable changes. 

It is also important to note that unexpected changes are the most stressful for autistic children. Simply letting the child know before the change happens will go a long way in helping them handle it more easily. It’s also important to note that autistic children tend to be more responsive to alternative methods of communication like visual aids. So it is important to know what works best for your child when communicating; don’t rely solely on verbal communication. 

In the middle of a meltdown, it’s important to be empathetic. An autistic child will have a meltdown because that’s what his or her body needs to do – it’s not a form of defiance. That’s why it’s important to give them the time to let it all out with you nearby so they know they are supported. Negative consequences should be eliminated. Instead, teach your child some coping strategies, and then reward them every time they use them to prevent a meltdown.