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Why and when to help a child with autism break free from routines?

Routines are essential to let children feel reassured and safe, however too much reliance on routines can cause more harm than good.

To many of us, routines play an important role in our lives, regardless of the developmental stage we are in. Without routines, we would possibly be filled with franticness due to the fear or anxiety of unknown and unexpected situations.

So, what exactly are routines?

Routines are a series of habits that provide a particular order of events, consistency, and predictability in the daily life of an individual.

As adults, routines are mentally and emotionally helpful as they make us feel safe by knowing what to expect next, being in control of the sequence of events, and expediting our daily decision-making process. Thus, contributing to the reduction of stress and anxiety levels. Similarly, children also rely on routines as it makes them feel safe and secure. The world of a child may be more confusing and chaotic as their ability to comprehend and make sense of their surroundings is limited.

Specifically, children with autism may find it even harder to deal with unexpected circumstances and sudden changes as they are not good at predicting future events. The need for stability and a sense of security is significantly higher compared to an neurotypical child.

However, how much reliance on routines is considered too much? To ensure the child’s developmental growth and progress, these are the possible questions to reflect on regarding routines:

  • Are the routines causing any distress or restriction from gaining valuable opportunities?

  • Are the routines obstructing or expediting learning?

  • Are the routines helping them to manage anxieties or actually making them more anxious?

Although routines are essential to let children feel reassured and safe, too much reliance on routines can cause more harm than good. We will take a look into how relying heavily on routines can cause inflexibility and rigidity in behaviours, and also how it negatively affects the functionality of behaviours.

Firstly, we have to understand how rigid and inflexible thinking is developed through heavy reliance of routines:

Children with autism use routines to obtain self-regulation to the confused and anxious mind and by using it, they have an idea of future events and what to expect next. Therefore, when unforeseen circumstances or changes disrupt the usual routine, the child would find it very difficult to cope with. Feelings associated with overwhelmingness of stress and anxiety can arise and these negative feelings can escalate meltdowns or aggressive behaviours.

Many times, unexpected changes occur during day-to-day learning. When the child is not prepared or unable to cope with such changes, it can impede the valuable opportunity to learn.

For example, speaking from my personal experience, when I was shadowing a child in her preschool, I witnessed the severity of her rigidity and inflexibility which caused an issue with her learning. On that particular school day, the main teacher called in sick hence she was absent. The moment another teacher came in to relief the class, the girl had a complete meltdown within seconds. It was hard for her to comprehend what was going on and the anxiety levels spiked up quickly. The inability to understand change and confusion caused her to exhibit behaviours of aggression and resistance to staying in the classroom. Not only did it affect her learning opportunities in school, it disrupted other students from learning as well. Such unexpected change proved the negative reliance on routines and when it is disrupted, behaviours escalate.

Secondly, the heavy reliance on routines that serve no functional purpose or value could potentially affect the child negatively. (Non-functional routine refers to the sequential, specified and purposeless behaviours a child displays.) Some forms of non-functional routine could be opening and closing the lunchbox five times before eating, arranging toys in an orderly manner, or the sequencing of how certain events should be carried out.

The insistent on sameness can be a problem since those behaviours are senseless and might consider inappropriate in social settings. Many non-functional behaviours could be coping mechanisms where the child feels comfortable when they are in control of what they are doing. Or, it could be due to sensory issues where the child feels calm and nice while executing non-functional behaviours. They might not even fully comprehend why they are doing it. If such purposeless routine or behaviour is not correctly changed during early stages, it may also cause inflexibility and rigidity in the future.

With reference to a book ‘From Anxiety to Meltdown’ written by Deborah Lipsky in 2011, non-functional routines could be established by accident by the people around them. An instance given was that a mother who wanted her child to behave while going somewhere in a vehicle. Mommy promises the child that if he behaves in the vehicle, she would stop by his favourite restaurant to buy snacks. Boy then associated behaving in the vehicle and going to the favourite restaurant every time he rides it. When Dad took over to drive and did not stop by the restaurant, Boy broke down. The book explains that this has developed into a non-functional routine as it is expected that whenever they drove to somewhere, they must make a stop at the favourite restaurant, whether or not the child wants to eat.

Hence, non-functional behaviours or routines can limit the person’s growth to learn new things such as properly establish purposeful behaviours to facilitate daily living skills. It is widely reported that people with autism have unusual sensory perceptual experiences hence, bringing high levels of anxiety and lead to non-purposeful behaviours that might actually serve as functional to them. We can change that by introducing and reinforcing functional and meaningful behaviours at the right time. Knowing when to break free from rigid and non-purposeful routine is crucial to encourage developmental growth.

To sum it up, too much reliance on routines promotes inflexibilities and rigidities that might cause the exhibition of non-functional behaviours which impact negatively on learning. It is crucial to step in at the right time to reform routines that unintentionally cause rigid thinking and inflexibilities that serve no purpose in the daily living. The longer the child with autism exhibit rigidity and inflexible behaviours that might potentially cause more harm and obstruction than good, the harder it is to change those behaviours.

Thus, reconstructing early, setting limits and boundaries within routines can help prepare the child to be more flexible and tolerant of change. Providing opportunities of change and flexibility can help them to increase mental and emotional power as self-regulation of emotions is being challenged. Growth is then achieved as there is an increase in the tolerant of change. As much as routines are essential to children with autism, not every circumstances can be predicted and changes do happen unexpectedly and unavoidably. There are ways to introduce and prepare for change such as the use of visual schedules, priming, and social stories. Making the change one step at a time, I am faithful that the child would be advancing in the right aspects.

Written by: Mabel


  • Edwards, D. (2008). Providing Practical Support for People With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Supported Living in the Community. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

  • Lipsky, D. (2011). From anxiety to meltdown: how individuals on the autism spectrum deal with anxiety, experience meltdowns, manifest tantrums, and how you can intervene effectively. London: Jessica Kingsley.

  • Sevin, J. A., Rieske, R. D., & Matson, J. L. (2015). A Review of Behavioral Strategies and Support Considerations for Assisting Persons with Difficulties Transitioning from Activity to Activity. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2(4), 329–342. doi: 10.1007/s40489-015-0056-7

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