Making Change Routine

“My brother gets very upset when there are any changes in routine,” said a family member of a teen with autism. “Because he just throws an extreme fit anytime we try to do something different, we eat the same foods and go the same places and watch the same movies over and over again. We are all getting bored and a little bit upset because we can’t do anything different.”

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This is a tough situation. Many individuals with autism are inflexible and can have extreme reactions to changes or interruptions in routine. That is ja natural part of autism, so we probably won’t be able to just snap our fingers and make him change. But, we can take some steps to help him learn that changes in routine are just a part of life. So, try some of these ideas below, adapting them for your family situation.

1. MIX NEW WITH THE OLD. First, you need to decide as a family to gradually start introducing new things in your brother’s life. Make a schedule for the week. Fill in all the regular, routine happenings like school, church, baseball, or whatever. Then let him pick out an activity, a favorite food, and a favorite movie for each day. Then take a step to introduce one change in routine each day. Instead of making a big deal over the aspect of “change,” just say something like, “You chose to go to the grocery store like we do every Friday. That is your choice. Now, I’m going to make a choice. I want to go for a walk in the park right before we go to the grocery store.” Just announce that new activity, write it on the calendar, and remind him every day that you are going to the grocery store on Friday at 4 o’clock and that you are going for a walk in the park at 3:30.

2.BE PREPARED. Your brother will probably get very mad when you head for the park. Your family needs to be prepared for his usual screaming and throwing. Before he starts screaming, say things like, “I know you want to go to the grocery store. We are going to the grocery store at 4:00. First the park, then the grocery store.” Then just ignore his screaming and keep things out of his reach so he doesn’t hurt someone in the car. When you get to the park, take a very short walk, then say, “That was fun! I like to walk in the park. Now it is time to go to the grocery store.”

3. DON’T GIVE UP. At first, your brother will be very upset with the changes. The key to success is to avoid giving up when he starts screaming. It will take some time, but eventually he will learn that he won’t get his way by screaming. Check out an upcoming podcast called “Expressing Anger” for ideas in helping him express his anger and frustration without screaming, hitting, biting, and throwing items.

4. MOVE FORWARD. Keep introducing new activities without taking away his old favorites. He will eventually learn that his daily routine includes one new activity. You can use the same principle to introduce new foods and new movies. Don’t take away his favorites, but add yours to the mix. For example, if he will only eat pizza on Tuesday nights, keep the pizza and add your favorite, a salad or spaghetti or whatever. If you stick with this plan, you can help your brother and your whole family enjoy life. Send us an e-mail to let us know what worked for you.

Note to listeners and readers: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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