Routines work to teach children stability and allows for them to predict what is likely to happen, but sometimes things come up and the routine has to be switched up. For instance, some kids may want to drive a specific way to school and get very upset if a different route is taken. Some kids have to sit in a specific chair for dinner. It’s common for parents to “walk on eggshells” with regard to changes in routines as they do not want to cause their child to have meltdowns or begin protesting.
Every situation is unique, but the basic idea to solving this problem is to take steps to teach the child to remain calm when things don’t happen as expected. If a child can get control of a situation, such as driving a certain way to school, he may start demanding control of other routines as well. It’s important to pick your battles and identify only one or two routines you would like to target for teaching the child to remain calm—you can’t address them all at once!
Before attempting to take on the big routine problem, it may be a good idea to reinforce (e.g., use specific praise to tell them what they are doing right) the child for going along with other routines that don’t seem to cause behaviors. If you walk a different way to the park and the child remains calm, reinforce them for that! Perhaps the child receives words of praise and a bonus minute or two to play at the park. Changing up other situations that don’t cause behaviors, then reinforcing the child for remaining calm, will set a precedent for good things to come.
When teaching a child to remain calm when there is a change in routine, it is very important to deliver reinforcers for remaining calm. The idea is that good things will happen for the child if he remains calm. The adults must not give in to protests and stand firm since the routine has been changed. Children have to know that they cannot always get their way! Once the child learns that the protesting and meltdowns will not get them what they want, and that there are payoffs for remaining calm when routines do occasionally change, it will be much easier for him to cope with and respond appropriately to changes in the future.
For more information on this topic and others including: walking nicely, waiting patiently, eating at the table and having trouble sleeping; go to Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism