Guest Author - Tara O´Gorman, MSW
Structure and schedule are words frequently mentioned when discussing success for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Autism is a spectrum, and the needs of all children on the spectrum vary. Some kids have an easier time adapting to varying situations, but a clear understanding of structure, routine, and schedule are essential to limiting anxiety and frustration.
Children with ASD have a tendency toward literal interpretation and a need for clear-cut rules. They generally experience sensory processing issues, have restricted or repetitive behaviors, find some level of discomfort in understanding social expectations, and have difficulty with facial expressions and body language. Change, unexpected or otherwise, can be confusing and create anxiety. Executive functioning deficits also pose a challenge in carrying out tasks, both at home and at school.
When daily expectations and schedule are explicit, children on the spectrum are more comfortable and feel less anxious. Preparation for transition and change are then easier to incorporate and may lead to less angst for the child as well as his parents and teachers. Using several methods, a type of 'course syllabus' for home and classroom can be created.
Structure and routine are important for children with ASD. They create security and prevent confusion and meltdowns. Kids on the spectrum benefit from understanding the HOWs, WHYs, WHENs, and WHEREs of the day. Social rules or 'DOs and DON'Ts' can be helpful for kids who are trying to adapt to a situation when they are uncomfortable or unable to settle on appropriate behavior and expectations. A visual schedule, with pictures and checklists can help simplify and break down each day's events, especially if there is an atypical activity coming. For example, if a child has an annual checkup with her pediatrician, parents can use pictures to describe the location and set up of the office, how to talk to the doctor, and how the doctor will use her stethoscope, tongue depressor, and hands to help examine the child.
Creating schedules can also ease anxiety and frustration. As with any child with executive functioning deficits, schedules for daily, weekly, and monthly activities are helpful for children on the autism spectrum and can be as detailed or general as necessary. Some children may only need a general outline of the day's activities and times. Others benefit from personalized daily schedules, including step-by-step pictures or descriptions of tasks such as brushing teeth, putting on clothes, and packing backpacks to head home from school. Ideally, schedules include appropriate transition time between activities and can incorporate 'reward' activities such as screen time or another treat that acts as an incentive to complete the day's events or to adhere to specific behavioral expectations.
Creating structure and schedules for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have benefits at home and at school. With a more clear understanding of daily expectations, children have less anxiety and confusion. Once routines and plans are created, parents and teachers may find they spend less time explaining and reassuring, and more time educating and enjoying family time.