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Teaching an individual with autism to be flexible

Does your child with autism cry or begin to have a tantrum when a routine needs to be altered?  Do you want to teach your child to remain calm and flexible when things don’t go as planned? It is common for a child with autism to want to keep the same routine, but sometimes things change! Here are some tips that may be helpful for teaching your child to become more flexible.  

It’s important to note that the skill of remaining calm when routines change is unlikely to be acquired overnight.  Teaching a child to display flexibility when routines change requires patience and planning.

Categorize changes that you can make to the child’s routine based on how likely it is that the child will remain calm when he is asked to modify his routine.  For example, you can categorize changes as “minor changes,” “moderate changes,” or “major changes.”

Start With Minor Changes

Start by making a minor change to the child’s routine. This change should have little impact on the child and cause him minimal to no irritation.  The goal is to teach the child that changes may occur, that it is ok when things change, and that positive outcomes can occur for remaining calm and flexible during these occasions. Some examples of minor changes may include having him sit in a different location while he is putting on his shoes (as he is getting ready to go outside to play) or having the child wait in a different location as you pour him his drink.    

The child is likely to remain calm during minor changes such as those noted above.  When he remains calm and flexible, praise him for doing so and consider giving him something extra as well (for example, his drink, allowing him to bring a favorite toy to the park, etc.).  The goal is to show the learner that good things happen if he stays calm and remains flexible when his routine changes. Once he sees that there are benefits for staying calm when his routine changes, he will be more likely to remain calm in the future when things don’t go entirely as planned.

When the learner can consistently respond to several minor changes to his routine, the parent or instructor can introduce moderate changes to his routine.  Please note that at this stage, it would still be unwise to “shoot for the moon” and ask the child to do something substantially different. Keep working your way up the ladder and eventually you’ll get to the top!  

After the learner becomes more willing to remain calm and flexible with moderate changes, it may be possible to begin to introduce a major change to his routine.  When attempting to introduce a major change to the child’s routine, consider using some prompts. For example, warn the learner that a major change is about to occur, remind him to remain calm when it does occur, and note what the outcome of his appropriate behavior will be. Make sure there are huge benefits for him for calmly going along with the change.Some moderate changes that might be introduced may include sitting in a different location at the dinner table, asking him to put his toys in a different location in his room, etc.  The child’s behavior should guide how far and how fast you can add changes to his routine.

To summarize, teaching a child with autism to respond to changes to their routines may require a lot of patience and strategic planning.  Start small and show the learner that being calm and flexible can result in good things. As the child develops this association, more changes, that may pose as more of a challenge to the learner, can be introduced.  The child’s behavior can be a good guide!

For more information on how to address rigidities and other problem behaviors, we recommend the book, Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism for more details and information.  

For additional autism education for parents and caregivers, view our products and ABA services listed at the top of this page.

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