When winter weather hits, children with autism spectrum disorder often have to cope with disruptions to their established routines and daily expectations. Changes in school schedules, difficulty with transportation, and limitations on daily activities can pose challenges to children and their families. Help your child understand these unexpected changes by providing a visual explanation, in a way that your child understands best. Preparing a child for changes can help reduce anxiety and clarify expectations when the unexpected occurs.
Schedules and Social Narratives
Children with ASD often have difficulty processing auditory (or spoken) information. Additionally, they often thrive on routines and have difficulty when schedules are different. Winter weather can cause significant disruptions to daily routines. Daily visual schedules allow a child to better process and understand what is going to happen on a given day. During times of unexpected change, a visual schedule can become a child's anchor, providing a sense of calm and understanding. Make sure to highlight and specifically teach your child or student to pay particular attention to a change on the schedule. For students who like routines, being able to identify an upcoming change through a special symbol or word is important. Use social narratives and practice incorporating positive changes into a child's day to teach a student to better accept when unexpected changes do occur.
Many children eagerly await winter weather and the changes (no school!) and excitement that come with it. The same is not always true for children with autism who rely on consistency and sameness to manage their day. Use weekly or monthly calendars to help your child understand any changes to their typical daily expectations. The visual support of a calendar lets your child know exactly when a change is taking place, and allows for a bit more peace of mind and understanding. A special symbol (a blue star, below) can be used any time a change takes place. A child can mark off each day to more clearly see the passage of time if needed.
As children prepare for non-routine activities like those that happen during winter weather events, having a visual way to communicate alternative activity choices can be a great strategy. Choice boards give children a way to visually see all of the options available at a particular time. Playing in the snow can be fun and exciting, but it may also mean another preferred activity cannot happen, like riding a scooter. A choice board can also be used to clearly communicate what activities may NOT take place. In the example below, the child is given some new options (building a snowman and sledding) but also can clearly see that a preferred activity (riding the scooter) is not an option.