How to Help Your Autistic Child Live With Change

Nothing is certain except change, even for kids with autism

Two children looking outside of car window
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Kids with autism prefer predictability and routine. They are often very picky eaters. They may have favorite TV shows that they watch daily at a certain time. Their expectations are often absolute. They want a particular brand of jelly, a certain color sheet, or a specific type of plate. Change the situation, and they may become very upset.

Kids with autism may also have very strong reactions to sound, light, touch, smell, and taste.

Fluorescent lights may be hard to handle. Crowded rooms may make them anxious. Wool or clothing tags can be overwhelmingly irritating

Given these realities, it can be tempting to want to create a "perfect" world for your autistic child. A world in which routines never vary, clothes are always comfortable, and expectations are always predictable. Sometimes it's possible to create such a world—at least for a little while. But no one can live in a bubble forever.

Fortunately, it's possible to help a child with autism learn to cope with change and become more flexible. All it takes is a huge helping of time, patience, and creativity.

Why Most Schools and Families Avoid Changing Routines for Autistic Children

When kids with autism are asked to change their routines, the results can be disastrous. Even high functioning children may fall apart completely if offered ham and cheese instead of turkey, or asked to turn off their favorite show because of a change in plan.

Kids with more severe symptoms may actually lash out physically or injure themselves if they feel out of control.

When faced with such difficult consequences for changing routines, many teachers, therapists, schools, and families choose to keep expectations and environments carefully controlled. Each day is carefully planned and change is kept to a minimum.

 In some cases, even the architecture of buildings is thought through with an eye to the particular needs and preferences of autistic students or residents.

In order to maintain consistency, many parents and schools minimize the number of outings required, and repeat the same experiences over and over again. If an autistic child does well at a particular park, doing the same activities in the same order, it's easy and pleasant to repeat the experience.

The Pros and Cons of a Managed Environment and Predictability

It is certainly more pleasant for people with autism and their families and teachers when life is predictable and managed. But is it always a good idea to work around an autistic person's preferences? 

Before launching into a pros and cons analysis, it's important to note that "preference" is probably too weak a term to describe the needs of an autistic person. Unlike typical kids who might "prefer" Cheerios to Rice Krispies (but are really just fine with any cereal they're not allergic to), autistic kids may become anxious and upset when denied their favorite breakfast cereal.

It may also be very tough for an autistic child to manage anxiety once it takes hold. An ordinary small disappointment can easily escalate into a major meltdown.


  1. Like anyone else, people with autism are able to attend better, behave better, and work harder when they are in a comfortable, predictable setting.
  2. Sensory challenges can be a very real and painful issue for autistic people. Fluorescent bulbs can become the equivalent of fingers on a chalkboard. Who can function well when they're in pain?
  3. Parents and siblings are more likely to enjoy a peaceful family life when their autistic family member feels comfortable.
  4. Students and teachers are more likely to have a positive classroom experience when autistic class members feel comfortable.
  5. It can be extremely difficult to manage autistic meltdowns when the autistic person in question is older than toddler age, especially when there is only one adult present with several children.
  1. It can be very embarrassing to be the parent of a 12-year-old who is having a major temper tantrum at church, in a theater, etc.


  1. Life is, by definition, unpredictable. A child who is taught to expect absolute consistency in routine, foods, etc., will find it extraordinarily difficult to manage unexpected change in the form of flat tires, fire drills, menu changes, etc.
  2. While autistic people may not actively want change, many are quite capable of managing well in other environments with practice and support. If they are not offered the opportunity to explore their limits, they will never know what they might enjoy or be able to do.
  3. Parents, siblings, and classmates may become resentful if their lives are arranged to suit an autistic individual's needs all of the time.
  4. No setting is permanent. Expectations and social interactions in second grade are very different from those in third grade. A new baby, a change in jobs, or a new work schedule can throw a household into a whole new way of being. When a child is taught to assume consistency, ordinary transitions can be very rough.

Why Flexibility Matters—Even for People With Autism

Everyone needs the emotional tools to manage change, because change is inevitable. That doesn't mean it's a good idea to assault an autistic child (or any child) with painful noise, constant disruptions, or an unpredictable schedule. But it is extremely important to teach your autistic child the basics of flexibility.

In addition to making life's realities easier to manage, there are other important reasons to teach flexibility. For example:

  • The world doesn't revolve around any one individual, and there are time when all of us must change our schedules to make room for someone else's special celebration, unexpected need, or unusual event. Everyone must be able to understand that someone else's needs must come before their own from time to time.
  • Emergencies are unexpected. The better we are prepared to manage emergencies, the safer we will be.
  • Some of the best things in life are unexpected. A new baby, a surprising opportunity, a special visit are all wonderful experiences that shouldn't be avoided because of autism.
  • We don't always know what we'll like until we've tried it. Yes, it's easier to shelter an autistic child or adult from change, but when we do that we may also be sheltering them from their own talents, or denying them opportunities.

How to Plan for and Manage Change, Transitions, and the Unexpected

The unexpected is...unexpected! So how do you plan for it? The easiest way to prepare a child with autism to be flexible in the face of change is to practice—by creating and prepping for pre-planned, low-stakes, low-anxiety changes and transitions.

Teachers and therapists may not wish to do this very often, as it is hard to plan for and manage the responses of multiple autistic children. As a result, the job of teaching flexibility usually falls mostly to parents and siblings.

Here's how to make it work:

  1. If you are going to set up a challenging situation for an autistic child, it is absolutely crucial to make the challenge safe, manageable, and low-risk. So choose a situation in which there are no negative consequences for failure, in which there are acceptable alternatives, and in which you are not creating problems for outsiders. 
  2. Choose a "problem" that is likely to change your child's routine without creating a serious emotional challenge. Perhaps she prefers Cheerios for breakfast but also likes toast just fine  or maybe she has more than one favorite playground.  
  3. Prepare your family for the challenge. For example, imagine you've decided to "forget" to buy Cheerios, and you will be asking your child to be flexible about his breakfast choice. Be sure you've explained your plan to other family members so that they will be both calm and supportive when the time comes. 
  4. Create a visual tool to explain the situation to your autistic child by presenting a social story or poster that describes what is happening and how to handle it. You might have a picture of a box of Cheerios with an X through it and a picture of a child enjoying toast. Depending upon your child's ability to understand, you might actually write a short story explaining "Joey's mom forgot to buy Cheerios. Joey was disappointed. Mom made toast instead. Joey enjoyed the toast."
  5. When breakfast time comes, show your child that there are no Cheerios. Allow him to respond. Then use your prepared tool to show him what has happened and what is planned.
  6. Move forward with your plan. In other words, serve the toast.
  7. Know that you may succeed or fail the first time. Your child might happily choose to eat the toast, or she might decide not to eat breakfast, or she might have a melt down. All of these possibilities are part of the process. The key to success is to avoid backing down. If you pull out the hidden box of Cheerios just to calm your child down, your child will learn that tantrums are the best solution to a problem.
  8. Repeat your planned "problem" situation on an irregular basis over time. Your child will begin to understand that sometimes Cheerios are available and sometimes they are not. When they are not available, she can opt for another acceptable alternative.

As your child begins to understand the need for flexibility in a very safe situation, you can up the ante by going out into the wide world—with the understanding that change and transition are difficult. To make this work:

  1. Choose your outing carefully. Avoid high-stakes situations such as theaters and major religious events, as a disruption could become a big deal —and avoid spending a lot of money when you know you may need to leave early. "Autism friendly" events at zoos, museums, and movie theaters may be a good option for your first outings, as the situations are new, but the expectations are low. Just be aware that "autism friendly" events may not be repeated, so your next visit may be very different.
  2. Plan ahead. Know where you're going, what to expect when you arrive, where to find a quiet space, what kind of food is available, and how you'll manage a strategic retreat if needed.
  3. Prepare your child and everyone else who's coming along. Use pictures and social stories to give everyone a heads-up regarding your plans and alternative plans. Let your autistic child know that should the situation become difficult, there are options (for example, "if you don't see something tasty on the menu, you can choose to eat the peanut butter sandwich in your backpack").
  4. If appropriate, practice ahead of time. For example, if your child will be ordering food in a restaurant, get the menu in advance. Help your child choose a preferred meal. Then role play so that your child can rehearse the process of ordering.
  5. Pack for success. Bring calming foods, toys, and music. Many children with autism become anxious in new environments but, with the right tools, they can calm down—and even have fun!
  6. Bring extra support. If you have more than one child with you during an outing, bring an extra adult along to support you. That way, should your autistic child have a tough time, you can split up (rather than ruining the experience for everyone).
  7. Grow a thick skin. Your child will not always respond well to change, and occasional difficulties or meltdowns are almost inevitable. Unless there are physical dangers involved, the best response is to ignore stares and either find a quiet place or leave the premises until everyone has calmed down. If you are embarrassed or upset when your child melts down, choose uncrowded settings (beaches, the woods, etc.) or go out during "off" hours (zoos and museums, for example, are usually very empty on Sunday mornings).
  8. Plan for short experiences that can be repeated many times. Few autistic children will do well in a crowded stadium for hours on end. Many, however, can manage a half-hour. Then after multiple half-hour experiences, they may be able to stay longer. To make this kind of experience possible, choose low-cost local events and don't get too married to the idea that you'll stay to the end.
  9. Keep it up. One outing is not enough to teach anyone how to manage new experiences. You'll need to build outings and unexpected events into your life over time.
  10. Share your strategies with teachers and relatives. As you find success, be sure you tell others what worked and what didn't. 
  11. Mix it up a little at a time. If Mom is always in charge of expeditions, let Dad have an opportunity. If you always visit the same shops in the mall, add a new shop to the list. If your child always chooses mac and cheese at the restaurant, offer a bite of your burger. It's all too easy for a "new" situation to become yet another predictable routine!


Boyd, Brian et al. Evidence-Based Behavioral Interventions for Repetitive Behaviors in Autism. J Autism Dev Disord. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 Jul 12.

Boyd, Brian et al.Effects of a family-implemented treatment on the repetitive behaviors of children with autism. J Autism Dev Disord. 2011 Oct;41(10):1330-41.

Van Eylen, L. et al. Cognitive flexibility in autism spectrum disorder: Explaining the inconsistencies? .Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 5(4):1390-1401 · February 2011.

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