How to help a child on the spectrum learn to cope with change
Updated: May 26
If we can be sure about anything, we can be sure about the fact that change is a constant and inevitable part of being alive. From the little things—like introducing a new activity to shake up the daily routine, to the big things—like moving into a new house or even a new city, change is certainly going to face us all at some point.
Yet another thing that’s certain is that many people on the spectrum struggle with change, even when it’s good. Something as small as a change in breakfast options can result in a full-fledged meltdown. As such, many teachers, parents, and caregivers of autistic children do everything they can to keep rigid routines and plan activities down to the minute. New things are avoided whenever possible to prevent anxiety and stress.
This is good, but let’s be honest, here: expectation for everything to remain exactly the same is not realistic. Schedules change, new things come up, people get sick, weather turns inclement, and things get cancelled. The world cannot and does not revolve around one person’s very specific schedule. As such, learning to cope with change is vital.
But how can this be done?
DEALING WITH EXPECTED CHANGE
Maybe your child’s class is going on a planned field trip. Maybe you and your significant other have planned a night out while you leave your child with a capable respite care provider. Maybe your family will be attending another loved one’s birthday party. Maybe your child has an upcoming appointment to see the dentist. Whatever the situation, there are ways to ease the stress of a planned change in schedule.
WRITE DOWN PLANNED CHANGES ON A CALENDAR
Purchase or create a calendar that can be prominently displayed somewhere in the home and write down and/or illustrate important events and dates in the boxes. Then have your child check the calendar every single day to see if something new is coming up sometime soon. If your child has questions about upcoming events, refer them to the calendar.
USE A SOCIAL STORY
A few days (or however long you think your child will need) before the event is set to happen, write up a social story of what will happen. A social story is a short narrative that explains social concepts and steps to a new routine, detailing what it should ideally look like. Depending on what your child responds to, you may use drawings or photographs to illustrate the social story.
VISIT, IF POSSIBLE
If the planned change will be taking place in a different environment, see about visiting the location before the big day. Knowing what the place looks like can help them better understand what to expect, which can relieve some of their anxiety. Likewise, if they’ll be in the care of another person, like a new teacher or respite care provider, it’s also a good idea to have your child meet them beforehand. If it’s not possible to visit or meet up beforehand, try searching for photos online.
CONTRIVE UNEXPECTED SITUATIONS
Life happens. On the way to soccer practice, someone rear-ends your car, and while no one is hurt, you now need to pull over and call the police to the scene. Your child’s teacher comes down with the flu and a substitute will need to fill in for her. A family emergency means your child has to miss tonight’s episode of their favorite TV program. There are things in life that can’t be planned for, but even when that happens, they can still be dealt with.
A powerful way you can help your child learn to deal with unexpected change is to deliberately expose them to it—starting with small changes and gradually working your way up to bigger ones. For example, you might start out with positive changes, like a surprise, make-your-own-sundae night at home to show your child that change can be a good thing.
Of course, it’s also important to introduce “negative” change, as well, as not all surprises are fun ones. These, too, should be small and relatively safe.
For example, if your child eats Cheerios for breakfast every single morning but you know they also enjoy eating toast, then toast up some bread for breakfast one morning. Will this possibly result in a meltdown, a tantrum, or an empty tummy? Yes. But stay calm and don’t give up; keep trying.
Here are some ways you can help introduce unexpected change and help your child cope:
Introduce a "?" Card Into Your Child's Visual Schedule
If your child uses a visual schedule, introducing a special card that represents an unknown event or change can help them expect and transition into the unexpected.
Give Your Child Time to Adapt to Unexpected Change
Presenting your child with a new breakfast option is probably not something you’ll want to try on a school day or an otherwise busy morning. So make sure your child has time to process and work through your surprise change.
Use Coping Mechanisms
Whether you have planned the unexpected change or it surprises you just as much as it surprises your child, implementing coping skills will likely be necessary. That includes things like breathing exercises, self-talk, distractions, healthy stims, and maybe even social stories if you can manage to scrape one together.
Model Appropriate Reaction to Unexpected Change
When an unexpected change catches you off guard, demonstrate to your child what it looks like to take it in stride and be flexible. If you’re on your way to the grocery store and your usual path is blocked off due to construction, you could say something like, “Oh no, the road we take is blocked off! That’s frustrating, but it’s okay! I can take this alternative route instead.”
Stay Calm and Offer Praise
Getting upset when your child does will likely make the situation worse. Instead, remain calm for your child and validate their feelings: “I know this is hard for you.” Be sure to also provide praise and rewards when they successfully cope with change.
Your child may never like change. That is okay. We all have things in life that we dislike. But your child can and should learn to cope with change and deal with the anxiety and difficulty it may present. No one can live in a protective bubble forever, so teaching them this important, real-life skill is a vital step to helping your child grow into a healthy, happy, independent adult.