One of the hallmark features of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders is a strong preference for routine behavior. The routines can appear nonsensical and interfering for outside viewers, but may hold significant importance for the person with ASD. Routines frequently allow the person with ASD to engage in established behavior patterns without having to integrate much new information, which can be potentially overwhelming. From what I've observed over the years, I believe that the need for routine is so strong for people with ASD that it cannot and should not be extinguished. Instead, the need for routine can be used as a strength in skill building, independent behavior, and eventually employment.
One of the easiest ways to incorporate routines in a positive way is with the establishment of morning and bed-time routines. Building on the last post about task analysis, set up a stepwise procedure for getting ready in the morning for school or work and for getting ready in the evening for bed. The steps should be consistent with the person's abilities and preferences so the individual will be able to complete the procedure with little to no resistance. Help can be provided when needed until the person feels more comfortable completing the steps independently. A routine is established when these procedures are repeated daily. The repetition over time will allow the person to have comfort and familiarity with what is expected, typically resulting in less resistance and more independence. Routines can be used for a multitude of behaviors including self-care, homework, and work related tasks.
Some care must be used in establishing routines, however, as once a routine is established it is very difficult to break or modify. Make sure that the routine is set up in a way that it can be carried out consistently. For example, if the morning routine takes a specific amount of time then it is imperative that the necessary amount of time is available in the person's schedule for completion of the routine. Consistency of routines needs to be across settings and people as well as time. A new job coach or supervisor needs to allow the employee with Autism to work within their regular routine. The same with a new teacher or caregiver.
That does not mean that routines are unchangeable. Sometimes routines need to be altered for legitimate reasons. For altering the timing of a routine, show the person with ASD the proposed time change on their calendar and explain and reasons and logistics of the change. For example, if a morning routine needs to start earlier in the day, the person may need some assistance in resetting their alarm or be shown on a clock the new time for the routine. If the steps of the routine need to be altered, review the new task analysis (list of steps) and show the person with ASD how it is different. Some practice sessions may be needed with the new routine before it is formally adopted.
There are many jobs and activities in society that require repetition and routine for success. Since people with Autism have a natural tendency for this type of behavior, using routines for developing skills and independence can not only be helpful for the person with Autism individually, but can help the people with Autism get more opportunities to make greater contributions to society in general.
Steven C. Altabet, Ph.D.