Whether your natural style is one of organized structure or a more laid-back approach, if you have a child with autism, you'll likely find yourself adapting a structured schedule. Kids with autism struggle with sensory stimulation and processing information, which can lead to behavioral issues and frustration. Even a few minor tweaks to your schedule can help your child navigate life more successfully.
The morning and bedtime routine are difficult for most children with autism, according to Sally Ozonoff, co-author of "A Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism." These kids are often slow to get moving in the morning and have a difficult time winding down at night. Staying organized and focused enough to attend to daily tasks such as getting dressed and brushing their teeth is challenging. Make a visual chart showing the steps your child needs to go through to get ready in the morning. Use a timer if that's helpful to keep him on task and offer positive encouragement when he gets it right. Say something along the lines of, "You got dressed in five minutes. Wow! Now you have more time to eat breakfast." Create a visual schedule for the bedtime routine, too. Turn off all technology at least two hours before bedtime and create a consistent pattern for bedtime that includes getting in pajamas, brushing teeth, reading stories or talking quietly.
Kids with autism often struggle academically, even though they might be highly intelligent. These kids often have trouble focusing because of their overwhelming sensory input. Transitions are challenging and can be accompanied by meltdowns. Kids with autism usually need more time to process information and might not hear auditory directions. A structured schedule can help both at school and at home, suggests Michael D. Powers, co-author of "Asperger Syndrome & Your Child." At school, talk with your child's teacher about the importance of structure and consistency. Encourage her to give a warning before transitions to reduce tantrums and outbursts. At home, create a consistent schedule for completing homework and set aside an area for working on homework. Most kids with autism need frequent breaks and a reduced homework load. Use your child's special interests as motivation. For example, a structured homework schedule might be that every day your child comes home and has a snack. She does 30 minutes of homework followed by a short break. After another 30 minutes of homework, she can watch television or play a video game.
One of the reasons kids with autism have meltdowns is because they feel anxiety. By providing structure, you create a predictable environment and relieve much of that anxiety. Special activities, such as play dates, outings, field trips and vacations, while fun for most family members, can overwhelm the child with autism. A structured schedule can help them manage and even enjoy these experiences. Let your child with autism know well in advance of play times and outings. Schedule play times for no more than two hours and monitor them closely. Play time with one friend usually works best. Before attending field trips, concerts or vacations, visit the destination, if possible. Otherwise, help your child do some research online. Take your child's visual schedules with you when you go on vacation and try to keep the schedule as normal as possible. Maintaining your regular daily routines provides stability.
Completing chores is a meaningful and worthwhile part of participating in family life, and children with autism shouldn't be exempt. On the other hand, surprising your child with a laundry list of assignments will likely cause friction. Assign your child two or three tasks each day. Use a chore chart and reward system to encourage accountability. Good chores for children with autism are those that have logical, predictable, sequential steps, such as unloading the silverware box or filing papers. Jobs that are open-ended or require lots of abstract planning are more difficult.In some cases, it helps to draw pictures of the steps involved in a task.
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