Handling Schedule Disruptions with Autism
BY: Elizabeth M. Felder, MD
Schedule disruptions are difficult for children with autism. Spring break usually comes with adjustments to the new routine, but this year has unique challenges as we face school closures and restricted activities. Many schools are planning to transition to online or distance learning. That raises many questions about what comes next and what happens now. Hopefully, your school and your school district are addressing, or will soon be addressing, how they will be handling the details going forward. I wanted to mention a few things to keep in mind as you navigate this time with your child, helping him or her to adjust to their new normal.
- Set a routine and stick to it. Children with autism are well known for their adherence to routine. They become very anxious, irritated, and easily upset when their usual routine is disrupted. They feel much more secure when they know what comes next from day to day and throughout the day. If you have an established routine, that’s great! Continue to follow it as closely as you can. The routine can be simple. The important part is to do nearly the same thing every day. If your child is also dealing with multiple households, it would be best if his or her routine was very similar in each home.
- Use visual schedules. Having a visual reminder of the daily schedule, or even the bedtime routine, can be beneficial for children with autism. It is helpful for them to be able to see what comes next during the day. If you must change the routine for the day, you can use the visual schedule to show what the new plan will be. If possible, go over the plan the night before. A visual schedule can take many different forms. It can be a written list like a planner or a series of pictures. There are many examples online. Choose the one that works best for your child.
- Have a place for home school. Many parents who home school recommend having a designated area in the home for schoolwork. This tends to help students focus on their assignments. Adults who work from home also use this approach. This approach limits distractions and ensures that your children have the supplies they need to do their work. It is also a visual representation that helps children separate work from play.
- Be sure to include recess. Studies show that physical activity boosts mood and reduces anxiety and irritability. Studies also show that physical activity just before a task that requires focus improves the ability to concentrate. Outdoor play activities have several benefits. Make sure you have indoor options for physical activity in case of rain. Be sure to add it to your visual schedule.
- What about therapy? This question came up in the office recently. Therapy is an important part of the school day for a child with autism. Missing several weeks of therapy can slow progress or even lead to regression of skills. This interruption in services may be unavoidable. If you are concerned about your child’s development, you should consider outpatient services if these providers are still seeing patients. Your child’s pediatrician will be able to help. You can try to get in touch with your child’s school therapist and ask about “homework” that you could do with your child until school services resume. There are online resources, such as activities and videos, as well. The Mississippi Department of Education Office of Special Education has posted a Q&A on its news blog with answers to questions about therapies and the IEP during this time.
- Have fun! This is a difficult time for children as they are adjusting to an unknown situation. Many children have had to adapt to multiple schedule changes. They are likely to be as frustrated and worried as we are. Don’t forget to have fun! Allow them their favorite activities and join in when you can. Do crafts. Play games. Make it part of their learning.
We are continuing to monitor the situation and are receiving updates daily. In our local area, new decisions will be made about the remainder of the school year on or around April 17th. There may be further changes as a result. As we go through this time of uncertainty, try to keep the daily schedule as close to routine as possible. Be patient and understand that your child may need a little extra help to cope with the confusion.
Information on this page should be utilized as a guide, not as medical advice. If you feel you need to speak with someone regarding counseling or mental health, please contact Psychology & Counseling to make an appointment.
At Psychology & Counseling, we offer counseling and mental health assessments. Following diagnosis, we work with you to determine the best course of treatment and counseling for you. If you would like to schedule an appointment, please call us at (601) 261-1650.