March 26, 2024


Pro Tips

Pro Tips: Dealing with change

Pro Tips provided by Claire Spangenthal, MA/SC, NCSP, BCBA, unit director at Summit Academy Enhanced.

Change is difficult and can be especially challenging for children and adults with autism who like consistency. Whether it’s plans that change last minute or life-altering changes like a big move, it can be difficult to prepare children to deal with that change.

Here are some tips for helping your child through expected and unexpected changes:

1. Introduce change early if you can.

The earlier children get used to change, the easier it will be when unexpected or big changes happen. If parents and caregivers avoid making changes to avoid problem behaviors, it will be more difficult to address changes as they get older.

Practice small changes throughout your child’s day. This could be something like changing the meal for dinner or a short-term activity like taking a walk instead of playing in the backyard.

2. Stick with your choice to make a change.

If you’re practicing making small changes in your child’s routine, stick to your changes as much as possible once you start. This will help your child learn to cope and work through change. Make it a positive experience by reassuring your child and acknowledging their feelings.

3. Plan ahead for expected changes.

If you know something major is going to change that will affect your child’s normal routine, you can be proactive. For example, you might get dinner at the same place every Wednesday. However, you have an event you need to attend on a Wednesday evening and won’t be able to get dinner from that restaurant that evening. Explain this to your child early on and offer alternatives such as going to dinner the following evening, ordering in and eating at home, or going earlier in the day.

When last minute changes do come up, acknowledge your child’s feelings by saying something like, “I know this is different and it feels strange, but we can do something else instead.” Offer alternatives, whether it’s an activity, food, a different toy, etc.

4. Handle big changes with support and reassurance.

When big life changes happen such as a family move, divorce, or the death of a loved one, it can cause difficult feelings for everyone involved. Children with autism may process this change in different ways. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and let them know you are there for them. Avoid phrases like, “It’s all right,” or, “Everything is fine,” because in that moment it’s not fine. Instead, say something like, “I see that you’re upset, I’m sad too,” or, “I know this must be really hard. It’s okay to be sad.”

Big changes can be positive too, like getting a new sibling or going to a new school. These changes might cause feelings of excitement or nervousness. Offer words of reassurance like, “I’m here to help,” or, “I’m here to support you.”

Some children may respond to distraction and want to do something else, while others may need to sit and process these big changes.