It's a well-known fact that children with autism often have difficulty with change in routine or unexpected events. The Autism Society of American says children with autism have an “insistence on sameness and a resistance to change.”

Historically, parents have been advised to maintain structure and routine in order to maintain peace at home. While this approach may work most days, there will be times when a routine must be broken. This can lead to many problems for a child with autism.

Despite this, strict adherence to routines may not be the best approach, according to Temple Grandin, PhD., a gifted scientist who is herself autistic. In her column in the July-August 2002 issue of Autism Asperger's Digest, she advocates teaching flexibility in order to help kids with autism learn to accept change.

Structure is good for children with autism, but sometimes plans can, and need to be, changed,” she says.  

Grandin outlines four steps for helping autistic children learn flexibility.

  • Maintain a variety of activities in a variety of environments. Go to different public parks, at different times, on different days. At home, offer finger paints, a sand box, swing set, building blocks and stuffed toys. The more experiences a child can have, the better.When I was little, my nanny made my sister and me do a variety of activities,” she said. “This prevented rigid behavior patterns from forming.”
  • Alter routines. Grandin illustrated this concept with a story about cattle. “Cattle that are always fed from the red truck by Jim may panic if Sally pulls up in a white truck.” By altering routines slightly children with autism learn to accept variation in their schedule. For instance, parents can have children brush teeth before bath one day, after bath the next. If you went to the library after lunch last Tuesday, go before lunch this Wednesday.
  • Use visual metaphors. Grandin described a metaphor of mixing colors to illustrate concepts that may not have a “right” or “wrong” answer. For instance, a friend may be very nice one day, and not so friendly the next. Grandin visualized white and black paint being mixed together. On the day when the friend was nice, the paint was nearly white. On the not so nice day, the paint was dark gray.
  • Show that categories can change. Children with autism may put something in one group, and not be cognizant that it can also belong with another group. For instance, a blue cup may be used for drinking in the kitchen. However, it can also be used in the bath to rinse shampoo out of hair. In another situation the same blue cup might be used outside in the sand box as a toy. If a child with autism thinks a blue cup belongs only in the kitchen, she may become confused or upset if she sees it in a different environment.

Flexibility is a part of life. We all have to learn to deal with unexpected changes. For children with autism, this can be especially difficult. By using various techniques, parents can introduce change, and teach flexibility. This can help the child at home, but it can also increase their ability to adapt when it comes time to make the important transition to school, where change will be an inevitable part of every day.