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How to Create Routines for a Child with Autism

Visual Schedules and Daily Routines

Both academic and anecdotal research have long touted the importance of daily routines for children of all developmental and learning abilities, both at home and in school. Routines can help eliminate power struggles, maintain consistency, foster cooperation, build the parent-child connection, and—perhaps most importantly—help kids take ownership of their own activities as their development progresses.

For younger children who can’t yet read, as well as older children who might be more visual learners, using visual schedules can be particularly helpful in the establishment of daily routines. But for families living with the challenges of autism, using visual schedules can be critical to a functioning household and developing child. Read on for more information about the importance of routines for autism and how to create an efficient daily schedule for autistic children.

Child finishing cleaning routine 

The Importance of Daily Schedules

While the spectrum of autism is vast and diverse, there are a number of challenges that are common. Daily schedules can be helpful in alleviating some of these issues. For autistic children dealing with anxiety issues, using visual schedules can help increase feelings of overall security by making events more predictable; they know what to expect at certain times every day, which may decrease destructive (and non-constructive) behaviors that typically arise when the future is unstable or unknown. 

Likewise, many autistic children are averse to certain tasks—but have no issues completing others. Daily schedules can be extremely helpful in these cases, as they enable the child to understand that completing the unwanted task is a necessary prerequisite to moving on to the preferred task. In addition, for autistic children with reading challenges, using visual schedules may help them understand what’s coming next, as well as more easily understand any schedule changes that might come up.

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 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

How you track your child’s progress throughout this schedule is also incredibly important—and this is where various approaches to using visual schedules to reinforce your family routines can help. Whether your child prefers visual charts, needs frequent positive reinforcement or responds best to electronic prompts, there are a variety of resources available to help you.  

Transition Strategies Using Visual Schedules

Studies indicate that up to 25% of the typical day—whether at work, at school or at home—is spent engaging in transitions. Since autistic children may have difficulties associated with changes in routine (rooted in their need for sameness and predictability) psychologists recommend that parents use transition strategies to help their child navigate the uncertainty of intra-activity transitions. 

It may be helpful for autistic children to “see” how much time remains in an activity before they will be expected to transition to a new location or event. Concepts related to time can be incredibly abstract (example: “You have a few minutes”), cannot always be interpreted literally (example: “Just a second”), and may be confusing for individuals on the spectrum, particularly if time-telling is not a mastered skill. 

Visual Timers for Autism Daily Schedules

In addition, research affirms that using visual timers or countdowns as part of an overall daily schedules strategy can help make transitions more successful for many families. That’s why Goally, developed in collaboration with psychologists and behavior analysts, includes a visual timing/countdown system as part of its overall strategy of using visual schedules to support the needs of autistic children and their families. So how does it work?

Effectively removing the emotional toll of parental prompts during daily routines, Goally sets a steady pace with timed tasking, positive reinforcement and incentives parents can customize to their child’s likes and dislikes. It all adds up to less frustration, more self-confidence and greater independence. To learn more about how the Goally software + support system can help your autistic child consistently reach new milestones in the journey to independence, click here.

Learn more about Goally.


Rachel Dowse is a Goally team member, former middle school teacher, and a practicing BCBA residing in Nashville, TN. When she's not working, she loves spending time with her husband and two children hiking, playing outdoors, and drinking good coffee with a book in hand.
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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