Mornings are one of the most challenging times for parents of children with autism. I know because my little guy is also diagnosed with autism, and mornings used to bring about chaos that would disrupt his routine. However, these five tips helped us establish consistency in our morning routines, so everything became less stressful, and they can work for you, too!
1. Consistent Wake Times
This goes for everyone! Children (and their parents) need time in the morning to ease into the day. If you wake up close to your departure time for school or work, you may feel rushed and anxious, as will your children. Some parents may find getting up earlier than their child is helpful so they can enjoy a cup of coffee alone or prep breakfast. A consistent wake time also helps children and parents fall asleep at the same time the night before. So if your child needs to be at school by 8:30 and it’s a half-hour drive, consider waking them up by 7:00, so they can casually eat breakfast, enjoy a favorite show, or finish up a homework assignment.
2. Different Clothing for Different Settings or Activities
Studies have shown that a person’s mood is heavily impacted by what they wear. A woman in a swimsuit feels very different than a girl wearing her wedding dress. This is also true for children and one reason so many schools have opted for uniforms. It’s a good idea to have clothes specifically for school and different clothing options for weekends or after school. This not only helps an autistic child understand what is happening in their day, but it can also decrease problem behavior over things such as wanting to wear the same favorite t-shirt every day since it isn’t an option.
3. Complete Morning Activities in a Consistent Order
Routine is key in getting children with autism to comply with a parent’s multiple requests, especially in the mornings when things tend to be a little more rushed than other times of the day. If one morning a child eats breakfast as soon as they wake up and another morning they are allowed to watch a favorite show before breakfast, this may set them up for emotional dysregulation and confusion. A consistent order in activities during their morning routine will increase the likelihood that they will comply because they daily repeat the same routine and they know it.
4. Uses Proven Positive Behavior Strategies
If your strategy of telling your child what to do next in their morning routine is to yell at them from across the room a multi-step request such as, “It’s time to turn off the iPAD, put your shoes on and get in the car,” chances are it isn’t working. But, using positive behavior strategies, such as these, will!
Use Visual Tools
Creating visual schedules with pictures can help a child to follow their expected morning routine. For example, print off a picture of your child eating breakfast and put the time 7:30 am underneath along with pictures and times for other activities they do each morning such as brush their teeth and put on their shoes. Visual tools can also help increase independence, which is a great skill to start building in children with autism.
Timers can be a morning routine lifesaver! Between each activity, set a timer, so your child knows when to transition into the next. For example, if it is their iPAD, but in two minutes it is time for them to brush their teeth, set a timer for two minutes and tell them, “When the timer goes off, it is time to brush your teeth.” Pairing the use of a timer WITH a visual schedule is an even more effective strategy!
If your child struggles to pick out clothing or eat breakfast, consider offering 2 or 3 acceptable choices to increase compliance. For example, if each morning your child wants something for breakfast you don’t want them to have, offer them two choices (one they highly prefer) instead. That might look something like this: your child wants pancakes, and you don’t have the time to make them; you might say, “Do you want cereal (which they love) or scrambled eggs (which they don’t really like). Chances are they will happily choose the cereal!
Keep Morning Routines Consistent, Even on Weekends
I know it is hard to wake a sleeping child on Saturday morning, and we all love to hang out for hours in our pajamas on weekends, but children with autism need their routines maintained. Children thrive in a predictable environment where they know what to expect. When you use consistent routines, and your child learns them, your entire family will enjoy more positive morning experiences!
The brain won’t learn unless it feels secure.Dr. Katie Penry – Psychologist