Special Needs Living: The Importance of Breaking the Routine

Suzanne Murray

flickr: Photo by david drexler
Today's guest blogger is Katie Olson
(aurorabunny), mom to 3-year old Brody, who has autism.

Every week, she shares the ongoing struggles and triumphs that often come with parenting a child with special needs. Today, she talks about helping Brody break out of comfortable routines -- and why it's so important.

For many children with special needs, especially autism, the need for familiarity in even the most seemingly mundane details of their lives can be absolutely overwhelming. Although every child is different, most children with autism have at least a few areas in which they crave sameness and it can spell disaster if these routines are disturbed in any way.

Some children insist on wearing the same outfit every day; others watch one movie or read one book to the point of obsessiveness. This need for routine can become a problem as children grow up and enter new situations (like preschool or kindergarten). And as a parent, figuring out how and when to break them can be confusing and difficult.

My son Brody has had this need for routine since infancy, although I didn't always see it as a problem. I have to take a little bit of the blame as I recognize more than a little bit of OCD in myself. (My husband has been known to quote the scene from Misery when Kathy Bates realizes that one of her penguins is facing the wrong direction in reference to my cleaning habits.)

Since Brody is non-verbal, we were confused at first when he would scream and refuse to eat a certain food that he seemed to love only the day before. We later realized it was because we had put the food in a different bowl then he was used to. I was a first-time parent with a strong desire to keep my little guy happy, so I started to give in to Brody's need for everything to be exactly the same at all times. I didn't see the problem: Who cares if he needs the same dinnerware at every meal or if he needs me to read a book with the exact same intonation every time? As long as he's happy, right? I couldn't have been more wrong. My wonderful in-home therapists taught me early on in the game how damaging it can be to allow this need for familiarity to become too ingrained.

They explained how hard transitions were going to be for Brody later in his life if I continued to let him keep his routine the same. I realized I had not even thought that far ahead. I was curious to know how to take steps toward varying Brody's routines and breaking some of these habits. The trick? Change up his routine and deal with the consequences. Ouch. We bit the bullet. I can't tell you that it was fun (think tantrums that surpassed the 60-minute mark) but I can tell you that it works. Today, Brody continues to impress me when he can ease into a new activity or go with the flow without a fuss when our day takes an unexpected turn.

He does still try to keep routines (currently he gets really mad when we take any deviation from our normal route to school), and we struggle to stay one step ahead of these new obsessions. We pick our battles and give in to his need for comfort in familiarity in some areas --  bedtime books and other things that even neurotypical children get particular about.

I'm glad that we learned early how important it is to change up Brody's routine, and I hope this will continue to help him cope with new things in his life as he grows older.

Does your child crave routine?

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