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Setting a routine for disabled children – and how to support your child when your routine changes

Routine changes can be difficult for children and young people with learning disabilities or autism.

Often they need a clear routine to allow them to understand situations and to structure their time.

Routines help families to understand who should do what, when it should be done, and how often.

For children it helps to feel safe and secure – and can be a way to help disabled children set boundaries and develop new skills.

However, having a set daily routine can also mean resistance when that routine changes. Things such as:

  • guests coming to your home,
  • bad weather preventing/cutting short a playtime activity,
  • a new teacher being introduced at school,
  • the clocks changing in the Spring and Autumn,
  • going somewhere new – such as the hospital, or
  • trying new foods or items of clothing.

 

There are some transitions within your day-to-day routine that you can plan ahead – like leaving the house for school, preparing dinner or visiting a relative.

But that won’t always be the case. In this blog we explore some strategies that could help your child understand what to expect and how to cope with changes to their daily routine.

Top tip: Explanations can be hard to follow for autistic and disabled children. Help your child to visualise routine changes.

Tell stories

 One way to help your child understand what’s going to happen is to tell them in the format of a story.

For example, you may be going to visit the dentist at short notice. Beforehand you could use a combination of words and pictures to set out the process of leaving the house, your journey, what will happen when you arrive, and so on.

It may also be helpful to end the story on a positive note, such as a visit to the park after they’ve seen the dentist.

Ultimately, this approach is about helping your child understand what to expect. To reassure them and minimise the number of surprises within their daily routine.

Use timetables

 Timetables are useful to explain what to expect and when.

You could use a combination of words and pictures, or even a clock itself, to explain when certain activities will be happening.

However, some children will get upset if an event happens before, or after, the time they were expecting. So it may be simpler to set out your day in a series of reference points.

For example, ‘waking up time’ could be followed by ‘breakfast’, ‘shower time’, ‘getting dressed’ and so on – with none of the events linked to a specific time.

Help them to prepare  

 One way to reduce anxiety is to spend extra time with your child getting ready for a change to their routine.

Using some of the techniques set out above, you could set aside some time to talk through and visualise what will happen immediately after the clocks go forward/back, for example.

Another example might be a visit to a new place. If you are able to, visit the venue in question at a quieter time or sit down and go through photos and videos of the venue beforehand.

This will help your child familiarise themselves with the new surroundings without being overwhelmed by noise or other people.

Make incremental changes and take things slowly

This will depend on the change to your routine but, if you can, start by introducing small changes at a pace you’re all okay with.

For example, your child might insist on always watching TV or their tablet before eating breakfast.

You could start by steadily reducing the amount of screen time before breakfast.

Once they are comfortable with that – and you have reached a small amount of screen time – try shifting to watching TV only on certain days and so on.

Help your child understand when an activity is over

 Many parents will know that their child sometimes finds it hard to watch from one activity to another.

A timer might help to address that.

Setting a timer to let your child know when an activity is over can feel very strict, but it provides a clear indication to your child.

It will indicate to them that when the timer sounds, it is time to go.

With older children you can give them the freedom to set alarms for themselves.

Introduce intrigue to their routine

 One strategy for helping your child get used to change is to deliberate make time in their daily routine that has an element of the unknown.

For example, if you use a visual timetable you could occasionally place ‘?’ symbol or just a blank space – whatever works for your child.

To begin with it is sensible fill those gaps with pleasant changes to your child’s routine.

Gradually, over time, you can then begin to vary the activities and frequency of unexpected routine changes.

Reward your child

To reinforce positive behaviour, make you regularly praise and reward your child whenever they cope with a change to their routine or an unexpected event.

 

 

Can we help?

 At Caudwell Children we have lots of support on offer for disabled children and their families. Find out more here.

We also have an in-house Autism Service. Our specialist team provide a two-day assessment at our purpose-built centre in Staffordshire and offer feedback appointments within 28 days.