“Being flexible” is a skill children with autism may struggle with often. “Being flexible” means dealing with a change to what was planned or what was expected. These changes tend to present themselves at the last minute. This can make it especially hard for your child to cope. It’s hard for anyone to continue to take part in a task or activity when it isn’t going as planned. For children with autism, these difficulties are magnified. For example, your child might have a meltdown when their favorite item at the drive thru isn’t available.
Situations where your child must be flexible in real life are last minute by nature. This means that practice is essential. Basically, you take a low stakes situation and turn it into a chance to show flexibility. The more you practice being flexible with your child in non-stressful situations, the more flexible they can be when stressed. Here are 5 opportunities to practice being flexible. These are common or easy to create in daily routines:
1. Vary the steps in your morning routine. This works for any daily routine that has many steps that occur in arbitrary order. It is tempting to follow the exact same routine each day. In fact, this predictability might be something you do on purpose. This helps your child learn independence or self regulate. But, if you are working on flexibility, considering varying the steps in the routine. This could mean starting with brushing teeth instead of getting dressed. You could clean up the playroom before dinner instead of after. Or, switch who handles which chore. Take turns being in charge of setting or clearing the table, for example. Varying the steps as a habit will help your child better deal with last minute or unexpected changes when they do happen.
2. Present two preferred options to choose from. Giving your child choices helps them learn to be flexible by selecting one option while they have to leave the other behind. This helps them learn flexibility in a situation where one preferred option is truly unavailable.
3. Pause or stop a fun activity for a short time. Work on introducing “spontaneous” interruptions to a preferred activity. For example, if you are reading a lengthy book with your child, you can pause the activity to do a short task like check on a meal that is cooking. Practice having your child wait for you to come back. This helps teach flexibility in a situation where something is delayed or interrupted. This is especially important when there is no known end time for the interruption.
4. Insert a neutral step into the day without prior planning. Again, teaching your child the schedule of the day and following it is important. But when you are working on flexibility, it’s good to introduce small activities or tasks that weren’t communicated at the beginning of the day. You can also prepare your child at the beginning of the day. Tell them “today we will have a surprise activity” so they aren’t completely caught off guard.
5. Skip over a step or a page “accidentally.” Skip a page of a book you are reading, or “forget” to bring silverware to the table at lunch. Coach your child on how to effectively communicate what happened and remedy it, without getting too attached to a perfect outcome. This will help your child deal with situations in the real world where a teacher or peer forgets or skips something accidentally.
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.