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Routines: Why Children With Autism Need Them, and What Parents Can Do to Help

Have you observed your child taking an intense interest in certain activities? Has she been requesting the same cereal every morning? Or has she been engaging in frequent behaviors that may seem different or strange to her peers?

One of the early signs of Autism in children is the need for a rigid routine. Parents might observe rigid behaviors from their children, such as needing to eat breakfast at the same time each morning, or needing to follow bedtime routines in a certain order. Parents might observe their child brushing her teeth before brushing her hair every night, without fail. Parents might also observe that any changes in this routine, however minor, might cause a reaction from their child, ranging from mild to aggressive.

Why, then, do children with Autism need a specific routine or behavior?

It’s simple: she sees the world as unpredictable and needs a safety net. Autism is often coupled with anxiety, so a lack of predictability can also equal fear. Therefore, children and adults with Autism develop routine habits to establish a sense of predictability, and therefore safety. As long as the routine she makes is safe, parents shouldn’t try to take away that sense of security.

Change for anyone can be jarring, but simple routine changes aren’t difficult for most people. However, for children with Autism, even a small change to a set routine can cause a reaction. As stated before, a routine behavior is equivalent to safety in the world for your child. Take away that safety, and you might trigger a response. The reactions you, as a parent, might observe can range from mild to severe, depending on the level and speed of that change. Some examples of reactions observable are the following:

  • Feelings of anxiousness and stress

  • Inability to make it through the school day

  • Tantrums

  • Aggressive behavior

  • Refusal to touch new items

What can I do?

This stress of suddenly being thrust into a new routine can be terrifying to a child with Autism. Parents can do several things to make her feel safer during these changes:

  • Before anything else, make an effort to understand why she is engaging in her routine behavior. Is it stimulating? Does it help her relax? Is it beneficial or harmful? If it isn’t harming her, consider not changing her routine. If she must play a game before school, let her get up a little earlier to play. If she want to flap their hands around because she needs to feel something stimulating in her fingers, that’s okay! Let her engage as long as it isn’t dangerous.

  • Increase structure in her daily life. Try to set your own routine as a parent and follow it. Seeing this feeling of structure will encourage your child to follow your routine as well as her own and make her feel safer.

  • If possible, warn her before a change. If the change isn’t surprising, her level of anxiety won’t be as severe. For example, if you’re running out of her favorite cereal, let her know before the last bowl. Then, let her know when you’ll be going shopping for another box. It might help to set up a calendar so she can remind herself!

  • Rehearse. Remember school presentations? You were nervous before those for a reason; you felt unprepared. That is everyday life for your child, especially when her routine changes without warning. Therefore, you should rehearse routine changes. Rehearse leaving the building during a fire drill. Rehearse walking down the hallway for another class instead of the hallway for last year’s class. Help her prepare for the events ahead of her.

  • Praise her for her hard work! She just faced her fears head-on, and will face many more in her life. Make sure that she knows her hard work is valued!


Author: Raeann Calcutta

Raeann Calcutta is a social media intern and blogger for the ONEIL Center for Research Communication. She has her associate's degree in Communications from Sinclair Community College and currently studies Communication and Digital Media studies at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

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