Some kids with autism feel comforted by activities that are reasonably consistent, while others absolutely require routine — even down to the smallest detail. While some routines — like a consistent wind-down routine before bed — can be positive and healthy for every child, eventually, kids need to learn to cope with change. So how can a parent help their child with autism adapt to new situations and environments?
A child’s lack of flexibility can creep up on parents to the point that everyday life is dictated by the child’s routines, says Cindy Mrotek, founder and CEO of a.c.e. Therapies. If a family goes so far as to time stoplights because their child won’t tolerate stopping as the family travels through a city, it’s time to help the child learn to be more flexible for the sake of the family, Mrotek says.
“Parents don’t always recognize it as it’s happening because they are working hard to keep their child happy and their family functioning smoothly on a daily basis. But when parents are continually following routine after routine for their child, eventually their world becomes very small and restrictive,” Mrotek says. “We help families open up their world by helping their child learn to be more flexible and adaptable to new situations. It’s an important skill.”
Reasons for the struggle
Part of a child’s comfort in routine is related to a lack of language skills, Mrotek says. “When children don’t have the language to ask questions about why they are in a particular environment, they can begin to feel out of control,” she explains.
A new environment can also cause sensory overload to the child who is sensitive to lights, sounds and smells, especially unfamiliar ones. “Sometimes kids lack a filter to guide their behavior. Or, the expectations are too high for them to achieve,” Mrotek adds.
ABA therapy, especially when it is delivered contextually — in a wide variety of environments and situations and not always at a desk in a static therapy center — can be highly effective in helping kids build flexibility and tolerance to new environments and situations. At a.c.e. Therapy, experts set a goal and start small, gradually helping a child build tolerance.
“We might have a huge goal, but we teach flexibility in small steps,” Mrotek says. “If a child will only eat dinosaur chicken nuggets, for instance, we may put a couple of regular nuggets in there to help them learn to be more flexible. And then we reinforce when the child shows flexibility.”
Small steps and effective communication
Recognizing when a child is most likely to achieve success and helping them along the way is key. “If a child doesn’t like to go to the grocery store, we don’t force them to go when we know they are tired or feeling irritable. It won’t be a good experience for anyone,” Mrotek says.
Instead, the therapist will choose an appropriate time for the child, but not expect to visit the entire store in one go. “We break it down. Maybe we walk down one aisle and then leave,” she explains.
Important to success for flexibility is teaching and reinforcing the skill to communicate when the child is done and it’s time to leave. “How can we break it all down to make it a more positive experience for the child and the family? We create small goals that lead to bigger goals, and we teach an effective way for the child to communicate that it’s time to go,” Mrotek says.
Parents can help increase their child’s success in learning to adapt to new environments by setting goals with their child’s ABA therapist and reinforcing key skills at home and in the community.
“One family was able to help their child tolerate a change at their favorite restaurant when their child only felt comfortable sitting at one particular table,” Mrotek says. “We helped the child by making continual changes in where they sat in our lunchroom. We encouraged the parents to continually change where the family ate at home. And we taught the child to communicate when they felt uncomfortable and how to make a request to leave.”
Just as important, they reinforced the effort with very enticing food and watched carefully to preempt any tantrums and antisocial behavior.
“It’s about knowing your child well and it’s about helping parents see that it’s not normal or helpful to always eat at the same table,” Mrotek says. “What if the table is not available or if the environment gets rearranged? Change can happen all the time in new environments.”
At a.c.e. Therapies, ABA therapists help parents understand that their child will not need therapy for the rest of their lives and that these skills — tolerance, adaptability and the ability to communicate effectively — can help their child and family function better in the community for years to come.
“We help give them wings to fly and the skills to tolerate new situations,” Mrotek says.
With locations in Merrionette Park, Lockport, Palos Heights and Naperville, a.c.e. Therapies supports individuals with autism, disabilities and challenging behaviors, helping build skills for successful lives. Learn more at ace-therapies.com.