Planning for the Unexpected: Strategies for when things do not go according to plan

February 7, 2020

Change happens and the ability for your child to handle those changes will depend heavily on how you set her or him up for success. Practicing, offering choices, and good communication are your most powerful tools for success. You are not alone, and even if your child reacts poorly to change you can be confident in your choice to go through with your plan.

Maggie Imlay

AnswersNow BCBA

Change happens and the ability for your child to handle those changes will depend heavily on how you set her or him up for success. Practicing, offering choices, and good communication are your most powerful tools for success. You are not alone, and even if your child reacts poorly to change you can be confident in your choice to go through with your plan.

As parents, we do our best to provide structure and predictability throughout our child’s day. We try to set up expectations ahead of time and provide positive feedback. Structure and consistency are even more important for children with Autism as they often struggle with change in routine.  Let’s be honest though, there is no way for us to plan, predict, and control every aspect of our child’s schedule. Because of that, it is important we have a plan for when unexpected things happen. 

Maybe your child has been looking forward to a birthday party all week but when the time comes the party is canceled. Or perhaps your child was not prepared for how loud an event would be. What about the times when your weekend plans change, and you need to quickly leave the house to help out a friend or family member? All these situations can be difficult for a child with autism and may result in challenging behavior. 

There are some strategies that can help make unexpected situations less stressful for everyone. 

  • Practice small changes in the routine with your child at home. Change the order of events, end an activity a few minutes early, or present an activity your child doesn’t like unexpectedly. Provide a ton of reinforcement when your child demonstrates flexibility without challenging behavior. This will increase the likelihood your child will be successful when faced with other unexpected situations. 
  • Offering choices is one strategy to use when your child is disappointed or frustrated that things did not go as planned. Maybe an activity was canceled or delayed. This is a great time to let your child know what they can do instead. Limit the number of choices to 2 or 3 depending on your child’s need. Too many choices can be overwhelming and could make the situation worse. Here is an example of offering choices when things don’t go as planned:
You and your child show up to the indoor gym only to see it is closed for the day. “Jonny, the gym is closed today. What a bummer. We can go to the park or the library instead. What would you like to do?”
  • Let your child know as soon as you learn there will be a change in routine and go over what you expect of them.  It is helpful to use first/then language throughout the day reminding your child of the expectations. Below is an example of:
“I know we planned on watching a movie this afternoon, but grandma called and needs our help. First, we need to help grandma and then we can watch movies.” The first/then phrase can be repeated if your child becomes upset about the change in schedule. 
  • Pay close attention and intervene as quickly as possible if your child is struggling in a situation. Each child has different signs showing us things might go downhill fast and you know your child best. Maybe they place their hands over their ears or stop listening to simple instructions.  Remind them they can leave the situation or ask for help before they get too overwhelmed. If needed or possible pull your child aside to a quiet area. This will give them a minute to calm down and go over expectations and ways they can ask for help. 
  • Most importantly, remain calm. If your child engages in challenging behavior when things do not go as planned it’s best to step 2-3 steps back and stop talking. Chances are that, while they may have started to get upset about a particular event, they are continuing to get upset due to how you’re engaging them. Talking to them, asking them to do things, standing really close to them...all of these can serve to intensify a behavioral crisis.
  • And lastly, have an actual exit strategy. Our favorite is: take two cars and decide, ahead of time, who the ‘exit parent/caregiver’’ is. It will reduce your anxiety by having a clear plan and ensure that the rest of the family can continue to participate in the: family reunion, wedding, church service, baseball game, movie, birthday party, etc. 

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