How to Create Routines for a Child with Autism

Routines are the bedrock of daily life, especially for children with autism. Creating a consistent daily schedule is one of the best things we can do for our families. It reduces stress, prevents unwanted emotions, establishes calm and order, and encourages shared family activity. 

It's a win-win for parents and our kids. What’s not to love?

Research has long-touted the importance of daily routines for children of all developmental and learning abilities, both at home and in school. In fact, studies show children with daily routines have a 47% increased likelihood of maintaining a strong social-emotional health as they grow older.

And they’re not just for improved mental and physical health. Daily routines can also:

  • Eliminate power struggles
  • Maintain consistency
  • Foster cooperation
  • Build the parent-child connection
  • Help kids take ownership of their own activities

That last one is particularly important in the development progress of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Below we’ll show how to create routines for children with autism, as well as show how aids like digital visual schedules can make doing so fun for the entire family. Most importantly, we’ll examine how maintaining a routine can help your children prosper in their daily life.

Child with autism completing clean up routine 

Daily Schedules and the Importance of Routine for Autism

While the spectrum of autism is vast and diverse, there are common challenges. Daily schedules help alleviate some of these challenges. In particular, they capitalize on two things most children with autism can appreciate: predictability and patterns. 

Making events more predictable helps autistic children learn to better deal with anxiety-inducing moments. It can increase feelings of overall security when the future is unstable.

Now to some this might seem counterproductive.

A resistance to change is very often cited as one of the biggest challenges faced by kids with autism. However, a daily routine can be a powerful tool in coping with uncertainty.  

Knowing what to expect at certain times every day, may decrease destructive (and non-constructive) behaviors that typically arise when unfamiliar events occur. Routine provides a comfortable, safe place to easily return to while adjusting to new situations. Likewise, many autistic children are averse to certain tasks, but have no issues completing others. Daily schedules enable the child to understand that completing unwanted tasks is a necessary prerequisite to moving on to the preferred task.

These examples demonstrate the importance of consistency in autism. But you probably already knew all this. 

So let’s dive into why you’re really here, which is to create a stress-free daily routine that actually works and your child loves.

Stay C.A.L.M and Routine On

No one wants to be a taskmaster. But it’s very easy to fall into that role when trying to get a child to do anything, let alone something as monotonous as brushing teeth. Heck, a lot of responsible adults don’t even brush their teeth twice a day. So getting a kid to do the same is no small feat. 

Taking on that burden day in and day out is stressful. But not all of it has to be. 

Here’s a 4-step guide to creating daily routines with your child, that begins and ends with C.A.L.M. 

1. Create

You can’t have a routine if you don’t create one. Start by identifying each task you’d like your child to complete, list them out, and organize a structured schedule. Designate when each should occur and for how long.

The routine should be visually engaging and something your child will respond to positively. Fun drawings or a photo of your child performing each task work really well. As can electronic devices specially designed for child routine management. (We’ll discuss these more below.)

Creating this routine together with your child can be a nice shared activity. So have fun and get creative! 

2. Alert

Creating a routine is one thing, sticking to it is another. (Just ask all those unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions.) So stay on schedule with alerts, no matter how busy things get.

Whenever a task is supposed to happen set an alert on your phone that both you and your child recognize. Use a timer for time-dependent situations, like to make sure your child brushes for a full two minutes. 

Alerts can also help eliminate some of the monotony of the routine by setting a different tone or noise (animal sounds are really fun) for each task. Best of all, over time, your child may even start doing tasks on their own when they hear the familiar reminder going off.

3. Like

A little positive reinforcement can go a long way. So be sure your child knows how much you like what they’re doing every step of the way. 

You can even incorporate this into your visual schedule (as we’ll see below). The same way you’d “like” a Facebook post, you can like, star, thumbs up, check off, or otherwise positively indicate on the schedule that not only has a task been completed, but your child did a great job.

Communication is a central part of establishing routines, especially early on. Refer to the schedule throughout the routine. Talk with your child about each task as they take part in it. Use the prompt hierarchy to guide them, such as pointing out what they’re doing on your visual schedule. Praise them for completing each task successfully. 

4. Maintain

Maintaining the daily routine will likely be the hardest challenge. At least at first. 

But the longer you keep up a regular schedule, the easier it will be to maintain. So stay consistent. In the beginning, be sure to complete each task in the order they are listed as best as possible, as often as possible.

Once the routine is firmly established, try gradually adding new elements, like conducting the routine at another family members home, or even slowly phasing aspects out, such as an alert. Small deviations can introduce flexibility, helping children to cope should changes occur.

Example of Daily Schedule for Autistic Child

While your child’s daily schedule will be unique to your family’s needs, the general framework is relatively universal. 

Here is an example of a daily schedule for a child with autism who does not yet attend school:

7:00 AM Wake up

7:15 AM Brush teeth

7:20 AM Get dressed

8:00 AM Eat breakfast

9:00 AM Therapy

11:00 AM Free time

12:00 PM Have lunch

1:00 PM Play outdoors

1:45 PM Snack time

2:00 PM Craft time

3:00 PM Free time

5:00 PM Eat dinner

6:00 PM Screen time

7:00 PM Bath time

7:45 PM Brush teeth

8:00 PM Bedtime

Goally visual schedule for autism

And here is an example of a daily schedule for a child with autism who does attend school:

7:00 AM Wake up

7:15 AM Brush teeth

7:20 AM Get dressed, eat breakfast, head to school

8:00 AM Arrive at school

9:00- 11:30 AM School activities

11:30 - 12:00 PM Therapy

12:00 PM Have lunch

1:00 - 3:30 PM School activities

3:30 - 4 PM After School activities

4:30 PM Head home or catch bus

5:00 PM Eat dinner

6:00 PM Screen time

7:00 PM Bath time

7:45 PM Brush teeth

8:00 PM Bedtime

Tracking Progress of Routines

Understanding a child’s progress is incredibly important. Luckily, daily routines make progress tracking very easy.

Each task in a daily routine can be considered a goal. And each goal has several micro-goals linked to it. So right off the bat you can easily track several things:

  • Completion of a task
  • Completion of a task without problem behavior
  • Completion of a task without prompting or assistance
  • Completion of the entire routine 
  • Completion of the entire routine without problem behavior
  • Completion of the entire routine without prompting or assistance

One goal leads into the next. Not only does this tiered routine tracking help parents stay organized in the midst of their own busy schedules and easily ascertain areas that might need greater attention, it also can provide positive reinforcement to the children on an ongoing basis and gamify the routine.

This concept of gamification is particularly useful. While not much really changes with the routine itself day-to-day, the achievements do. They are a clear sign of progression and can encourage children to engage.

So in that sense a daily routine can be treated as a game that parents and their children play together. When you look at it like that it doesn’t seem so monotonous after all.

Make Routines Fun with Autism Visual Schedules

Visual schedules reinforce your family routines by making them fun, interactive, and constructive. Just like a game. They often use images, symbols, and photos to better communicate a task or activity.

Visual schedule for autism

For any young child who can’t yet read, as well as older children who might be more visual learners, using visual schedules can be helpful in the establishment of daily routines. However, using visual schedules can be especially critical for families living with the challenges of autism.

There are a lot of different types of visual schedules. Physical schedules, like wall mounted boards or planners, have been in use for a long time. 

Example of a visual schedule for cleaning up

More recently, digital planners and autism apps have become the go-to resource for daily routine management. Accessible on smartphones, tablets, and third-party devices, digital visual schedules make creating daily routines for children with autism more interactive than ever. 

They are essentially all-in-one tools that help to:

  • Keep track of tasks by checking off completed items
  • Send notifications of tasks by alarms, sound, and vibration
  • Provide visual countdown timers
  • Provide spoken texts for people who have difficulty with reading
  • Help keep focus on the task at hand

These modern visual schedulers help autistic children understand what’s coming next in their daily routine, process any schedule changes without distress, and manage transitions easily, in a game-like setting that is both captivating and comforting.


Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.

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