Environmental Structuring and Support for Children on the Autism Spectrum

A variety of strategies are available to enhance the predictability of – and benefits to be gained – from the environmental setting. The security that comes from being able to anticipate and understand activities, schedules, and expectations significantly enhances autistic kids’ capacity to appropriately respond to various home, classroom, and community demands.

Establishing clear behavioral expectations and rules, following routines and schedules, and ensuring physical, environmental, cognitive, and attitudinal support are helpful in creating structure. Establishing and following clear behavioral expectations is one of the simplest and most effective means of establishing structure for children on the autism spectrum.

Kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) clearly benefit from environments that offer clearly stated examples of desired behaviors. It is extremely important that these rules and expectations be reviewed regularly and that these children have an opportunity to practice them in multiple settings and with multiple peers and grown-ups.

Another simple and effective method of providing structure for children with HFA is through routines and schedules. Building on their preference for predictability, order, and consistency, this structuring strategy helps these young people to respond and adapt more effectively to their ever-changing environment. Group and individual schedules, presented in written, pictorial, or combination formats, are especially useful in communicating the sequence of daily activities and in alerting AS and HFA kids to new activities and schedule changes.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Physical, environmental, cognitive, and attitudinal support means making available adequate resources to effectively sustain, manage, and supervise children with HFA in various settings, including classrooms and other school environments (e.g., play areas, on school buses, in home settings, in community areas like shopping malls, etc.). Paramount in providing these resources are grown-ups and peers who are knowledgeable about – and sensitive to – these “special needs” children and capable of supporting their needs.

On too many occasions, there are situations in which peers have bullied and provoked children with HFA to engage in unacceptable behaviors out of ignorance. Thus, a significant step in preparing supportive environments for children on the spectrum is to inform their teachers and classmates of the characteristics and nature of the disorder, their role in supporting kids with the disorder, and ensuring appropriate protection.

Why do HFA children need – and crave – structure?

Autistic kids’ fear of the unknown includes everything from a suspicious new vegetable to moving to a new town. These young people handle change best if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine. A predictable routine allows them to feel safe, and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives (e.g., walking to school by themselves, paying for a purchase at the store, going to a sleep-away camp, etc.). Unpredictable changes (e.g., a best friend moving, a grandparent dying, a parent getting called away on an unexpected business trip, parents divorcing, etc.) erode this sense of safety and mastery and leave the youngster feeling anxious and less able to cope with the fluctuations of life. 
==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Of course, some changes can't be avoided. But that's why we need to offer our “special needs” kids a predictable routine as a foundation in their lives – so they can rise to the occasion to handle big changes when they need to.

While helping HFA kids to feel safe and ready to take on new challenges and developmental tasks would be reason enough to offer them consistent structure and routines, it has another important developmental role as well: structure and routines teach these children how to constructively control themselves and their environments. In homes where there is no set time or space to do homework, children never learn how to sit themselves down to accomplish an unpleasant task. Children who come from chaotic homes where belongings aren’t put away never learn that life can run more smoothly if things are organized. Children who don’t develop basic self-care habits may find it hard to take care of themselves as grown-ups. Structure allows AS and HFA kids to internalize constructive habits.

What are some of the benefits of using routines for AS and HFA children?

1. HFA children learn the concept of "looking forward" to things they enjoy, which is an important part of making a happy accommodation with the demands of a schedule.

2. Over time, these young people learn to take a shower, brush their teeth, pack their backpacks, etc., without constant reminders. Children love being in charge of themselves. This feeling increases their sense of mastery and competence. Children who feel more independent and in charge of themselves have less need to be defiant.

3. Routines eliminate power struggles, because the parent is not “bossing” her youngster around. A particular activity (e.g., brushing teeth, napping, turning off the TV to come to dinner, etc.) is simply what is expected at that particular time of day. The parent stops being the “bad guy,” and nagging is reduced significantly.
==> Parenting System that Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder

4. Routines help children cooperate by reducing stress and anxiety for everyone. Everyone knows what comes next, they get fair warning for transitions, and nobody feels pushed around, or feels like mom and dad are being haphazard in their decision-making.

5. Schedules help moms and dads maintain consistency in expectations. If everything is an argument, moms and dads end up giving in – or giving up (e.g., save the homework for tomorrow, more TV, skip brushing teeth for tonight, and so on). With a routine, the parent is more likely to stick to healthy expectations for all family members, because that's just the way things are done in the household.

How can parents provide routine and structure for their HFA children?

Kids on the autism spectrum face tremendous challenges in focusing on tasks and completing them on time. Providing structure in your youngster's life can help decrease frustration for both of you. Your youngster may be so distracted that she doesn't hear your instructions, so creating a daily routine is essential. By keeping her environment neat, organized and predictable, you can help minimize the internal chaos that may keep your HFA youngster from thriving.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Before bedtime, lay out the items you need in the morning (e.g., lay out clothes in the same spot on your youngster's dresser, and leave shoes, socks and coats by the door; help him pack his backpack for school so it's ready to go, etc.). The fewer things you leave to chance, the easier it is to get out the door on time.

2. Do daily tasks with your youngster (e.g., brush your teeth together at night, wash your face together in the morning, sit with your youngster to do homework, etc.). Your presence can help her focus and make tasks go faster.

3. Eat meals, wake up, go to bed, and take medication at the same time each day. Keeping your youngster's biological rhythms steady can help keep moods and focus in check.

4. Set a timer for tasks. Explain to your youngster how long the task should take and challenge him to complete it before the timer runs out. Break longer tasks down into manageable chunks of 5 to 10 minutes, taking a quick break to stretch or walk around before setting the timer again.

5. Write down your youngster’s daily schedule and post it in a clearly visible spot. You may need to plot-out the day in 30-minute or 15-minute increments, and include even seemingly mundane activities (e.g., brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.). Talk through the schedule with your youngster first thing in the morning so she knows what to expect for the day.

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