Children in general, but especially those with autism spectrum disorders, generally have a difficult time with transitions. It stems from the fact that they have trouble shifting attention from one activity to the next and tend to have a greater need for predictability. As any parent of a child with autism knows, preparation strategies are crucial. These next few days are the perfect time to begin preparing your child for the back-to-school routine. By using this time to slowly transition into the routine, it will help avoid the meltdowns and behavior issues that can occur when a child is not adequately prepared for a new situation. Here are some tips:
· If your child has trouble waking up in the morning, start putting him to bed earlier, using 15-minute increments to get the time earlier each night. Once he is used to waking up at the expected hour, waking up on the big day will be much easier.
· Next, you need to establish a consistent morning routine. Using a visual schedule is a great way to show to a child the sequence of events that make up this routine. You can prepare the schedule together with your child using pictures or drawings of familiar activities such as going to the potty, brushing teeth, getting dressed and eating breakfast. The visual schedule will give your child a sense of control and allow him to understand which activity follows which. To help avoid power struggles, it is helpful to have a desired activity follow an undesired activity. For example, if TV is part of your morning routine, make sure that more difficult tasks such as getting dressed come first and TV time can serve as a reward.
· Give your child a 5 or 10-minute warning before he is expected to move onto the next activity. Never whisk him away from a preferred activity and demand that he gets in the car when it is time to leave. When giving warnings try to make the instructions as clear as possible by breaking them down into simple steps. Sometimes a seemingly simple statement such as “we’re leaving in 5 minutes” can be too difficult for a child to understand. Instead you can say “in 5 minutes we have to walk out the door and get into the car”.
· If power struggles over food or clothing are an issue, be sure to offer choices, as in “you can have cereal or oatmeal”. You can even have your child choose his clothe the night before. Choice making will give the child a sense of control and reduce the power struggles.
· Needless to say, choose your battles. Give up on combing his hair to perfection, for example.
Once you have established your routine stick to it consistently. Having a predictable and consistent daily schedule builds confidence in a child, decreases anxiety, and encourages cooperation. Preparation and consistency are keys to success in back-to-school. Remember, it is not about “begging” or “forcing”; or “hoping” your child will be OK. It is about manipulating environmental variables (routines, visual schedules, rewarding positive behaviors, providing choices instead of directives, etc.) to prevent meltdowns and facilitate desired behaviors, such as compliance. You can be in control, and you should.
Board Certified Behavior Analyst