What are the benefits of creating a schedule for my child while staying at home all day?
There are many benefits to having a routine — for individuals with and without disabilities! In fact, I recommend establishing some sort of routine for everyone in the family, particularly in the morning, evening, and at mealtimes. Establishing a routine can provide a sense of comfort during this time of uncertainty and also some sense of control. We know that many individuals with ASD thrive on routines, and often have difficulty adjusting to disruptions in routines. When children are bored we also tend to see an increase in disruptive or mischievous behaviors. Having a set of activities and scheduled times can limit boredom and keep the mind stimulated. The CDC provides some guidance on creating a structure within the home environment.
What should I include in the schedule…and where do I even start?
- Start with the morning activities (e.g., wake up time, breakfast, brushing teeth, getting dressed) and go from there.
- If possible, involve your child in creating the schedule so that they know what is coming. You may even include where the activity will occur to make sure space in your house is shared. If you have the space in your home, try setting up a spot for school work that is different than where your child plays to help with the transition to and from school work. Consider reviewing the schedule at the start or end of each day – this can also help build organizational and planning skills.
- The use of pictures or other visuals can be particularly helpful; consider using a checklist or other visual that indicates when the task or activity is complete (such as physically moving the activity to an “all done” box). Check out these examples provided by the National Autistic Society, but remember these don’t have to be elaborate – you can use post-it notes or just paper and a pen!
- In addition to time for schoolwork, schedule free time or play time, and perhaps even list choices in activities (e.g., electronics, coloring). If you know your child will always choose electronics as a free time activity but are trying to limit electronic use, establish set times for electronics.
- Include activities that involve physical activity to keep your child active, such as going for a walk or riding a bike. Physical activity is not only important for physical health, but it also helps to release energy and improve overall mood.
- Don’t forget to include time to connect socially with others (at a distance of course). Find time to connect over video chat or even wave to a neighbor if you can remain at a safe distance.
An hour-by-hour schedule just does not seem feasible for my family – what should we do?
Remember that our routines are all a work in progress; we are adjusting to this new way of living and you have to figure out something that works for you and your family. Dr. Shafali Jeste, pediatric neurologist at the Center for Autism Research and Treatment at UCLA, recommends trying to have a schedule at least for the first two hours of the morning and the last two hours of the day. This can help to prepare your body for the day and prepare your body for sleep. A good night sleep is important for many things such as mood, concentration, appetite and keeping our body’s immune system strong.
My child is having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, any suggestions?
Difficulty falling asleep (and staying asleep) is very common in individuals with disabilities – and in times of stress we may all experience difficulty sleeping. To fall asleep, we need to be able to calm down our bodies and our minds. In my last post, I gave some tips for anxiety treatment, and some of these can also be helpful for falling asleep. Other tips for good sleep for all members of the family include:
- Only use the bed for sleeping! Try to limit use of the bed for completing school work or free time activities. Even sitting next to the bed is better than being in the bed. The reason behind this is that you want your mind to associate your bed with sleeping.
- Establish a calming bedtime routine that starts an hour or two before bedtime. This may include taking a warm bath or doing a calming activity that your child enjoys (e.g., drawing, writing, reading). While many children enjoy reading a book before bed, I do not recommend this for children who dislike reading or find reading stressful. The last thing you want when trying to calm your child before bed is to have them do an activity they don’t enjoy. Your child may prefer having a story read to them, listening to an audible book, or another (electronic free!) activity.
- Limit the amount of lights on in the house at least an hour before bedtime – this means turning off overhead lights (lamps are fine) and turning off electronics. Light actually travels through the eyes and tells the brain it does not need to be sleepy – so turn off electronics, or at least switching to night mode.
Any resources to help with sleep?
There is a lot of information on the internet about sleep – and it can be overwhelming to sift through! For resources backed by doctors, I recommend the websites https://www.sleep.org/ and https://www.babysleep.com/. I also recommend the books Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents can get a Good Night Sleep by Jodi Mindell and Take Charge of Your Child’s Sleep: The All-in-One Resource for Solving Sleep Problems in Kids and Teens by Judith Owens and Jodi Mindell. If your child is having significant difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, you may consider speaking with your child’s primary care physician or a therapist with experience treating sleep disorders for additional support and suggestions.
This post is part of a 5 part series of articles written by Dr. Jamie Barstein, child clinical psychologist at The Help Group with expertise in working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities as well as their family members.
Contributions to this series were made by Dr. Laurie Stephens, Director of Program Development at The Help Group.