Helping an Individual with ASD Learn to Accept and Cope with Change

As an individual with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I like structure and predictability. I enjoy knowing what is going to happen, first, next, and last. Not only do I like knowing what is going to happen, I also tend to want to know exactly when they are going to happen. Sometimes my need for structure and predictability can be hard to meet because the world we live in is unpredictable. Change is often hard for many individuals with ASD to accept and handle. Change is something that can not be avoided, it happens, it is simply a part of everyday live. Therefore, since change can not be avoided, one must teach an individual how to best cope with changes that may make them feel anxious or uncomfortable.

Response to Change
Remember, changes that seem small and meaningless to one person, especially a person without autism, may seem huge to a person who has autism. As a direct result of this, a neurotypical’s (NT’s) reaction and a person with ASD’s reaction to change will likely be very different from each other. Something as small as having to have Cheerios for breakfast instead of the Fruit Loops that they normally eat everyday for breakfast could be something that could cause the individual with ASD to be thrown off for the rest of the day. Even though the change is small, the person with autism may react in a big way, such as crying, complaining, or even having a meltdown.

Tips for Dealing with Change
Helping an individual with autism deal with changes in their daily routine is not something that will happen overnight. It is something that takes years of practice, support, and an understanding team of individuals. There are many different strategies that can be used to help support an individual with autism to learn to cope with changes in routine.

Support Ideas:

  • Use a Visual Schedule with a special symbol that indicates that a change in schedule is going to take place.
  • Write a Social Story about changes and how to cope when a change may make you feel anxious or unsure.
  • Use the Five Point Scale focusing on change and coping with changes.
  • Reassure the individual that everything will be okay.
  • Let the individual know that you are aware that the change makes them feel unsure and anxious and that you are there to help them cope.
  • Warn the individual with ASD about a change before it happens (the more notice the better), if this is possible.
  • Support the individual while they try to process, accept, and cope with the change.
  • Write changes down so the individual with ASD is able to visually see the change and so that they can read it over and over as many times as they need to.
  • Allow extra time for the individual to process the change.

Adapting and Coping with Change
Coping with change can be hard–trust me, I know. I have improved at accepting and coping with changes in schedule or routine over the years. Now there are times when changes do not bother me. I am able to adapt to them and accept them similarly to an individual without autism. But there are other days where changes cause me to get anxious, unsure, nervous, upset, and result in me not being able to cope for a short period of time. This is in part due to the way my brain processes information and the way autism affects me and my way of thinking. But the most important thing to remember when working with an individual with ASD is that they are more than likely trying the best they can to function in a sometimes confusing world. No one is perfect, we are all humans, everyone makes mistakes, and that is okay; it is simply a part of life. Everything is a learning process.

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Chloe Rothschild About Chloe Rothschild

Chloe is a young adult who has PDD-NOS who shares her experiences, her talent, and love for writing to raise awareness about Autism. Visit Chloe at Oh The Places I'll Go: My Life With Autism .

  • sondra

    chloe this is of still one of my greatest challenges at times.. especially a change in routine things

  • Chloe Rothschild

    Change is hard Sondra.

  • Gavin Bollard

    Great article Chloe and excellent support ideas.

    Most of the time (these days) I can cope well with change however even if I seem totally unaffected, I still find that I’m more stressed in general and more bothered by little things. My wife will sometimes say “have you taken your happy pills?” (which means my blood pressure tablets) but sometimes the underlying cause is simply, change.

    I’d add one more thing to your list (which you’ve said elsewhere anyway but it deserves to be in your main list). Simply; “Don’t make unnecessary changes.”

  • Katie Kelly

    Chloe, thanks for giving us parents a gentle reminder to always be sensitive. Not sure if you do this, or not, but we also make a list of the good things that the change will bring and my son keeps that in his pocket. When my son reaches his hand in his pocket, the note serves as a reminder, not simply of the change, but that something good is in his future. Thanks, again!

  • Martianne Stanger

    ” But the most important thing to remember when working with an
    individual with ASD is that they are more than likely trying the best
    they can to function in a sometimes confusing world.” is so true.

  • Robin Parker

    Love your ideas for accepting and coping with change. Especially love the visual support ideas. I also try and teach a ‘change of schedule’ symbol/words for those times there are changes that can not be prevented or enough warning given. We begin by teaching when good changes occur (playing instead of homework, etc.) and then adding some not so great changes. I find that once the prep work is done, it makes it easier even if the change is not appreciated. The ‘change of schedule’ symbol/word when visually represented can often help if taught over time. When these unexpected changes occur, ‘venting’ and acknowledging that it is ‘horrible’ have also helped.

  • Chloe Rothschild

    Thanks katie and great idea about the positive things!

  • Chloe Rothschild

    Thanks Martianne!

  • Chloe Rothschild

    Thank you Robin!

  • Chloe Rothschild

    Thanks for sharing your experience with change Gavin.

  • EA

    Anyone got any advice for me on how to do this with my fiance. it’s very challenging to believe we can really build a life together when he has such intense anxiety about leaving me in the house in case something gets broken or changes whilst he’s out… I’ve tried to do it his way to accommodate the anxiety, but it results in me not having keys to where I’m living and therefore totally dependent on him for access to our house – and that doesn’t work at all for me. Today when I refused to vacate the house because he was going out, his anxiety came to meltdown stage – and in a 50 yr old man that can look very frightening to neighbours who don’t know about his AS. Ideas? Anyone ?