How Autistic Individuals Can Adapt to Changes in Their Routine
By guest writer Jackson McMahan
Familiarity can be comforting. Although having the same routine day in and day out can be boring, for many autistic individuals, those familiar routines are appealing. Routines often serve as anchors that provide comfort, predictability, and a sense of control in a sometimes overwhelming world. They can reduce anxiety, minimize sensory overload, and offer a structured way to manage daily life.
However, life is complex, and the routines we spend so much time getting used to can suddenly change. For many of us, adapting to new routines can be challenging, but for autistic individuals, these changes can be especially daunting.
That said, change is an inevitable part of life, so it’s important to learn how to adapt to changes or disruptions to our routines. This means understanding how the change will impact your life and figuring out the best way to work the change into your day.
In this blog post, I'll explain the relationship between autism and routines, plus offer tips for how autistic individuals can adapt to changes in their routines.
Understanding Why Routines Matter for Autistic Individuals
Routines are more than just habits or schedules. For many autistic individuals, they are a lifeline to managing the complexities of daily life. Here are some reasons why routines matter for autistic individuals.
Comfort and Predictability
The world can be an unpredictable place, filled with unexpected events, sensory stimuli, and social interactions. For someone with autism, this unpredictability can be overwhelming. Routines counter this unpredictability by providing a sense of order amidst the chaos. They replace randomness with a predictable pattern that autistic individuals can rely on.
Structure and Purpose
Routines offer a clear structure to the day. This structure allows us to know when we perform a task or activity, and where. They organize our days, so we can cleanly go from one task or activity to another. This structure also grants a purpose to each task as we know what needs to be done and can be accomplished when completing our tasks, knowing we have progressed through our day.
Reduced Anxiety and Sensory Overload
Many autistic individuals experience anxiety or heightened sensitivity to their surroundings. At the wrong time, an autistic person may start panicking or experience sensory overload. With the right routines, autistic individuals can reduce the impact of their anxiety or sensory overload by performing a routine that copes with either situation.
Reasons for Change in Routine
Life, with its ever-evolving nature, often brings about changes that necessitate shifts in our routines. For autistic individuals, understanding the reasons behind these changes can be the first step in managing them.
Here are some common reasons why routines might need to change.
Moving to a new home, a new city, or even a different room can disrupt familiar routines. The new environment is unfamiliar and can mean attending a new school or starting a new job. These changes introduce new schedules, responsibilities, and social interactions all on top of adapting to a new place.
Major life events like the birth of a sibling, marriage, or the loss of a loved one can influence your daily routines and reshape your household dynamics. These life-changing events don’t just cause one shift in your schedule, they can overhaul your entire routine.
Even something as routine as the change of seasons can impact daily activities. For example, if it’s winter and you live in a region that has snowfall and have a house with a driveway, then you’ll sometimes have to clear snow from your driveway so your cars can leave the house.
Illness, medical procedures, or therapy sessions might necessitate temporary or permanent changes in daily activities. For example, if you break your arm, then you can’t drive while it heals, so you may need someone to drive you to your destination.
New Interests or Hobbies
Discovering a new interest or hobby can lead to a desire to incorporate it into the daily or weekly routine. It could mean finding time in your day to play a video game or deciding when to paint or knit.
Strategies for Adapting to New Routines
Change, while inevitable, doesn't have to be daunting. With the right strategies, adapting to new routines can become a more manageable process for autistic individuals. Here are some effective approaches to consider:
Introduce Changes Slowly
Instead of a sudden shift, consider introducing one change at a time. This allows for a smoother transition and provides ample time to adjust to each new element.
Use a Visual Schedule or Calendar
Visual aids can be helpful. Marking changes on a calendar or creating a visual schedule can provide a clear picture of what to expect and make the unfamiliar more tangible.
Visit New Places in Advance
If the change involves a new location, such as a school or workplace, visiting it beforehand can reduce anxiety. Being familiar with the environment can make the actual transition less intimidating.
Role-play or Rehearse New Scenarios
Practicing new routines or activities at home can build confidence. Role-playing can also help with anticipating potential challenges and finding ways to address them.
Discuss Changes with Other People
Sharing feelings and concerns with trusted friends, family, or therapists can provide comfort. They might offer insights, advice, or simply a listening ear.
Vary Routines Intentionally
Introducing minor variations in the routine can help build adaptability. Some examples of this include changing the order of activities slightly or trying a new route to a familiar place to create flexibility.
Join Support Groups
Connecting with other autistic people with similar experiences can offer a sense of community and shared understanding. These support groups are a platform to exchange tips, share stories, and encourage yourself and others.
Work with an Autism Life Coach, Occupational Therapist, or Mental Health Therapist
Professionals familiar with autism can provide tailored strategies, coping mechanisms, and support for managing changes. These seasoned professionals are a helpful resource, especially if you are struggling to adjust to a modified routine.
Although strategies and support systems are important, it's equally important for autistic individuals to have personal coping mechanisms in place. These tools and techniques can empower them to manage their emotions, reduce anxiety, and manage the challenges of change more effectively.
Using Sensory Tools or Comfort Objects
Items like weighted blankets, fidget spinners, or reflective balls can provide a calming effect during moments of heightened anxiety or sensory overload. Meanwhile, comfort objects like a favorite toy, a soft scarf, or a cherished book can also provide a sense of familiarity amidst change.
Engaging in Calming Activities
Deep breathing exercises, meditation, or listening to soothing music can help center oneself and reduce stress. Activities like drawing, journaling, or crafting can also serve as creative outlets to express feelings and find solace.
Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is a common coping mechanism for many autistic individuals. Whether it's rocking, hand-flapping, or tapping, these repetitive actions can provide comfort, give the senses the input they crave, and help with emotion regulation.
Setting Aside Time for Self-Care
Allocate specific times in the day for relaxing and self-care. This could be a quiet reading session, a warm bath, or some downtime in a comfortable space. Recognize the importance of taking breaks, especially when feeling overwhelmed, so you can be relaxed.
Sometimes, the best way to cope is to take a step back and seek solitude. Find somewhere you can be alone for a while and take a few moments to reflect. A few moments of quiet reflection can help you regain composure and clarity.
Repeating positive affirmations can boost self-confidence and morale. Phrases like "I can handle this," and "Change is a part of growth," and "I am resilient" can empower you and place you in a more positive mindset that allows you to accomplish more of your goals.
Change is a testament to the ever-evolving nature of life. For autistic individuals, while adapting to new routines can present unique challenges, it also offers opportunities for growth, learning, and self-discovery. Embracing change doesn't mean letting go of the comfort and security that routines provide. Instead, it's about finding a balance, understanding that while routines offer a foundation, adaptability paves the way for new experiences and horizons.
It's important to remember that everyone’s experiences are unique. What works for one person might not work for another. The key lies in self-awareness, understanding one's needs, strengths, and areas of challenge, and seeking the right tools and support to manage the path ahead.
In the end, adapting to new routines is not just about managing change; it's about embracing it, learning from it, and emerging stronger and more resilient. It's about recognizing the resilience within and moving forward with hope and determination. Whether you're navigating change yourself or supporting someone through it, remember that with the right tools, strategies, and mindset, any transition can become a journey of empowerment and growth.