7 Tips to Help Kids with Autism Build Flexibility and Resilience

Prepare to Change
Prepare to Change. Getty

One of the hallmarks of autism is a preference for a predictable routine.  Many people on the spectrum have unusually consistent lives.  They eat the same foods at the same time each day...  go to bed at the same time each night...  wear the same clothes summer or winter...  and take part in the same activities, in the same order, over and over again. Routines lessen anxiety, which can be a serious problem for many people on the spectrum.

While there's nothing wrong with an orderly and predictable lifestyle, it can become difficult to maintain when even the smallest thing goes awry.  What happens if the refrigerator breaks down?  The bus is late?  Your shoelace snaps?  While these relatively small "catastrophes" may be mere road bumps to a neurotypical person, they can feel overwhelming to a person with autism.

It can also become very challenging to live with a child (or adult) who is absolute about his or her routines and preferences.  The reality is that life -- and neurotypical need for variety -- get in the way.  Whether we're attending life events like weddings and funerals, coping with major weather events, or enjoying out-of-town vacations, we are often required to bend, flex, and accommodate to suit the situation.

Often, classrooms and programs for kids and adults with autism are set up to make life as predictable and routinized as possible.

  Visual schedules are posted and followed to the minute. Expectations are met, and novel experiences are kept to a minimum.  The same is true in many homes, which are organized to ensure consistency.  This is a great way to keep emotions on an even keel -- but of course, when "disaster" strikes (as it does on a regular basis in the form of everything from early dismissal to a case of the flu), people with autism have few resources for managing their own emotions or the requirements of the new situation.

As a result, teachers and parents are often surprised to see a usually calm, low key child go from mellow to explosive over what seems like a tiny change.

Because flexibility and resilience are critical skills for a full life (or even a life outside of an institutional setting), it's very important to teach and practice those skills -- even if doing so is difficult or uncomfortable.  With that in mind, here are some tips for building flexibility and resilience without creating emotional havoc for yourself or your loved one with autism.

  1. Work on skills that will help you to stay calm and supportive in the face of autistic anxiety or meltdowns.  The truth is that most people with autism prefer to do things their own way -- and, when faced with the need for flexibility, they may get upset. If you get upset along with them, the situation will escalate into a full blown meltdown on both sides -- and will probably end with a return to routine.  Whether you practice meditation, deep breathing, or simple perspective taking, it's up to you to maintain your patience and a positive attitude.
  1. Practice flexibility in private or welcoming spaces.  Just as you wouldn't encourage a child to practice on their first bicycle in a the middle of a busy street, you shouldn't practice flexibility and resilience in the middle of a mall.  Home, or the home of an understanding friend, is a great place to get started.  Out in the world, you will face the judgements of others who will have little understanding of what you're doing or why you're doing it.
  2. Model and practice appropriate responses to disappointment or anxiety.  Of course you know that EVERYONE faces disappointments and must bend to reality -- but your child with autism may not know.  It's helpful to model real or simulated disappointments and appropriate responses.  For example -- "Oh NO!  I'm out of my favorite cereal!  I'm so disappointed!  What am I going to do?  Hm.  Maybe I'll eat toast for breakfast instead.  It's not my favorite, but I guess it'll be okay.  Later, I'll get more cereal at the store." [Hint: social stories can also help to prepare kids with autism for difficult situations.]
  3. Start slowly by providing clear, easily-implemented options when flexibility is required.  Creative brainstorming is tough for everyone.  When working on flexibility, therefore, it's helpful to start with specific options to choose from.  For example: "I'm so sorry we don't have the hot dogs you expected for dinner. You must be disappointed.  Would you like chicken fingers or hamburgers instead?"
  4. Choose limited, low-risk situations to practice flexibility.  Major changes are overwhelming for all of us.  So select situations for practice that are low-risk for both you and your child with autism (choosing a new side dish for dinner, wearing a different shirt, etc.).  Be sure you have enough time and energy to go through the process together -- and, as sometimes happens, to fail and try again.
  5. Recruit others to support flexibility and resilience.  In the real world, a parent isn't always around to support and facilitate flexibility and resilience -- and others are often included in the mix.  As possible, involve your partner, your child's siblings, therapists, and others in real or simulated situations that break out of the ordinary routine.  What do THEY want or need?  How can decisions be made that take others' concerns into consideration?
  6. Prepare options in case you need them.  Even with preparation and practice, unexpected change can upset the best of us.  Be prepared for that possibility whenever you can.  For example, you may believe your autistic child is ready to try a new restaurant or go to bed a little later -- but factors ranging from fatigue to sensory overload to plain grouchiness can get in the way.  When that happens (and it will), have a Plan B available such as "we'll eat take-out!"

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