How to help your autistic child cope with change

Change is stressful for most people, but for people on the autism spectrum, change is particularly stressful, Ilse Kilian-Ross, offers some tips on how to best support your child through change.

Change causes anxiety for most people.  It can make us feel scared about what happens next, sad about “why did things need to change” or angry about having to change a routine we are used to. 

For people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, change can be particularly stressful – add-in not being able to speak or express themselves to the equation and the situation soon becomes “explosive”, leading to anxiety attacks, meltdown, tantrum and even seizures.

Some of the most common “changes” autists struggles with include:

  • Driving different routes to and from familiar place;
  • Going into places they have never seen or been to before;
  • Leaving the house;
  • People arriving at the house for a visit;
  • New décor in the house, moving of toys, changing anything in the environment that they have become used to;
  • Different hairstyles, or a drastic change in appearance both physically and different types of clothes or pattern that they are not used to;
  • Eating new foods;
  • A change in weather;
  • Change in routines for e.g. when a daily walk gets cancelled because mom is sick or no bath time because of a water cut, power outages etc.

So how to help your autistic child cope with change is in fact twofold:

Firstly:  you need to plan ahead, understand transitioning difficulties in the child and make sure you have a strategy for “change” in place; and

Secondly:  teach the child that change is ok.  Help the child adapt to a variety of situations by deliberately changing aspects of your daily life. 

Let’s take a look at these two in more detail. 

Tips to help you plan ahead:

  1. Social stories are a great way to let your child know what’s going to happen next.  It gives visual cues and helps the child understand the way forward;
  2. Visual schedule or visual timetables can be a simple way to let your child know what comes next.  You can use pictures on these schedules or words or both;
  3. Talk to your child – do not assume that they understand what is happening and why you have decided to change the route you drive to school in the morning. 
  4. Make changes small – When you want to introduce change start with small changes and then lead up to big changes.
  5. Distraction techniques – learn distraction techniques from a very young age.  Be careful to not reward for bad behaviour but always have something on hand that you can implement that will calm down your anxious child.
  6. Don’t rush into things – If you need to make a big change like moving home, changing his/her bedroom or schools then do so gradually.  Take time to visit the new place a few times before you make the change.  This way your child can get familiar with the new environment before he has to adjust to the change.
  7. Allow the child to self regulate – this is most likely the hardest thing for a parent of young children.  It does not help you get emotional every time your child becomes anxious because all you are doing is re-enforcing the fact that the child has something to be anxious about.  If you stay calm and allow your child to self regulate your child will also find it easier to calm down.

Now we can look at Tips to teach change to our autistic children:

Most parents and educators tend to keep life very scheduled for their autistic children because it makes life so much easier.  Our children flourish within structure and predictability.  BUT how will it help them navigate adulthood?  Life is not a schedule or routine and we need to give our children change coping skills from a young age.

Like any new skill a child need to learn how to cope with change.  Teaching “change” acceptance to an autistic child needs a lesson plan. 

  • Social stories about change and how positive change can be needs to be prepared and done with the child regularly. 
  • Your physical home routine or classroom needs to be “changed” regularly so you can help de-sensitise your child to it.  I am not saying repaint or move the entire house around – what I am saying is:
    • Change where you have meals – have lunch indoors, outdoor, in the garden or in the kitchen. 
    • Change meal times at home slightly – some days have dinner at 18h00 and on other days have it is 17h30 or even 18h30.  Even children that are not able to read time will associate a TV show with the time of dinner or when the sun goes down, or when dad gets home and once that “routine” is set you will need to stick to it or deal with the tantrums.
    • Morning routines in the house can change every now and then.  We are all creatures of habit and we need to be aware of our own routines and how they affect our autistic children’s expectations.
    • Don’t always use the same bathroom or toilet – use all the bathrooms in the house.   Bath or shower the child in a different room if possible and don’t ALWAYS put bubbles in the bath.  (Change bath time, bath toys, bath song ….)
    • Drive a different route to the same destination regularly.
    • Don’t go to the same garage or shop just because it is the one closest to home.
    • Don’t buy the child the same packet of chips every time you stop at a particular shop – buy him/her something different or don’t buy them anything from time to time.
    • Change bedding or move some of the toys in their room.  Best to do this when they are present and when they get a bit older they can even help with the process.
    • Don’t always give your child juice in the same cup, or on the same plate or allow them to only eat with 1 particular spoon or fork….   I think you get the idea
  • Visual schedules or visual timetables are great but they need to be changed regularly.  If a child knows that he eats after his math homework or baths after food and that is the only schedule he knows – means changing it will become a problem!  Rather make math after breakfast one week and math before lunch on another.  Keep the same activities but do them at different times in the day.

Remember that easy is not always what is best for the child in the long run… 


Image result for amazing kIlse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, ABA, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum. Read more about this Johannesburg Autism School here.

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