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What to Do When Plans Change? 5 Tips for Children with Autism

What to Do When Plans Change? 5 Tips for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Colorado Center for Assessment and Counseling offers psychological evaluations and counseling for children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder

You had a plan. You packed the car. Everyone knew the time that they needed to get ready. You walked through how everything was going to go. And then…plans changed. For whatever reason, they cancelled soccer. Most children become upset by change, but children with autism spectrum disorder have a much harder time. The word for you is: inflexibility. Inflexibility describes the supposed stubbornness and rigidity of children with autism spectrum disorder. This rigidity often shows itself during times of unexpected changes, major transitions, and the moments between rest and action.

This inflexibility has little to do with preference. In fact, research shows inflexibility in children with autism is hardwired in their brains. It’s a direct response to anxiety and stress. The difficulty comes into play whenever tasks or expectations switch suddenly. The focus of their mind is to get in the car and go to soccer. That’s an easy place to be, and their brains are at rest. But if things change, many children with autism spectrum disorder melt down. This is because switching from rest to action is far more difficult for our children with ASD. And this difficulty grows with every change of plan and unmet expectation.

Children with autism spectrum disorder can be  restricted, inflexible, and even obsessive in their behaviors, activities, and interests. So, our goal is to train and coach them into flexible thinking. In order to support and encourage children with these difficulties, here are 5 tips to help navigate times when plans change:

1.  Have a “Calm Down” Routine

Everyone must learn how to regulate their emotions. While we all experience emotional swings whenever we encounter difficulty, teaching emotional regulation can be a lifesaver for children with ASD. Whether that’s knowing when to take deep breaths, or giving themselves a hug with their eyes closed, the goal is for your children to know that they can control their emotions. So, when plans change, and your child faces that difficulty, teach them how they can calm down. Here are a couple ideas:

  • Deep breathing with eyes closed
  • Giving themselves a hug
  • Rubbing their hands together

Be sure to practice this calm down routine a couple times a day, and before any kind of predictably difficult situation. They will learn how to regulate their emotions safely, and it will become a natural response for them instead of outbursts or tantrums.

2. Give Warnings and Prepare Where You Can

With enough notice, most people can navigate change easily. If you give your child a straightforward, but calm, heads up of change, then they can have the space to switch their thinking. Then, when they begin to walk through the change, stay close and be supportive. Before you confirm a plan, it can also help to have a “plan B” just in case things don’t go the way everyone hoped.

If your child is moving to a new school, visit the school several times. Give plenty of time and attention to your child’s adjustment. If the first visit is a quick drive through the school’s parking lot, and the fifth visit walking through the halls, and the eighth visit is finally meeting his new teacher, then that transition will go far more easily for everyone involved.

3. Minimize Change As Much A Possible

If you’re renovating your house, and everything is out of the ordinary, it’s not a great time for your child to deal with much else. If they just started a new after school program, then you may want to hold off Any transition takes time and energy to handle. So it is helpful to have as few unnecessary transitions and changes as possible. While training your child in accepting small changes to routine throughout the day in a small scale, big changes can affect your child deeply and for a long time.

4. Find Ways of Communicating Frustration Appropriately

Be the example for your children and share how you positively navigate change and stress. Tell stories of times you felt scared because of change, and how everything worked out just fine. If something is bothering them, give them the space to talk with you. Then, ask helpful questions along the way. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong?” ask questions like, “How are you feeling about moving next month?” The more they understand that they can talk with you, the less they will act out inappropriately, because now they have a safe space to release all those feelings.

5. Involve Them Everywhere You Can

If you’re moving, let them pick out the paint color of their new room. If they’re starting at a new school, let them pick out their clothes for the first day. And if there is a sudden change in plans, have a couple “plan b” choices. This kind of involvement is not only empowering, it gives them a level of ownership and control that they may not have experienced otherwise. These choices are ways that your children can protect themselves and work against the overwhelming feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety. By involving them directly, you give them power and agency in a world that can sometimes feel out of their control.

We’re Here to Help!

Our clinicians specialize in treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder in children, teens, and adults at our office in Fort Collins. Feel free to give us a call to learn how counseling or a psychological evaluation can help. Call us today schedule an appointment. You can reach us at (970) 889-8204 or contact@coloradocac.com.

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