Since young children can’t tell time, having a schedule or a routine of events throughout the day helps young children to know what to expect and what is coming next. You might have noticed that a lot of preschool and kindergarten classrooms have picture schedules that show a chain of events, such as a book to symbolize story time, followed by a sink to symbolize washing hands, followed by a juice box and crackers to symbolize snack time. This way, the children will know that they will have story time first, and when the story is over they will wash their hands and have snack time.
Having a structured routine is even more important for a child with autism. Since children on the autism spectrum often have a difficult time making sense of their surroundings and understanding social interactions, the world can seem very frightening at times, more so than for a typically developing child. A lot of autistic children are also developmentally delayed in many areas, which means they could be much younger mentally than they are physically. For example, you could have a five-year-old child who is only two or three years old developmentally. This can create even more challenges when dealing with daily activities, and these children often require more structure.
I think that one of the best things my husband and I have done for our son so far is use a picture chart, paired with a timer and reinforcers. (For those that don’t know, a reinforcer is like a reward or a motivator to help someone on the spectrum complete a task, a good example is giving a child one M&M if they look in your direction when you call their name.) When we started using the picture chart, it took some time for my son to adapt to it, but once he did, it helped us tremendously. It has places for three pictures, but we only use two. It has helped greatly with his ability to transfer from one activity to another. It has especially helped with dinner time. We will put a small picture of a TV in the first square and a small picture of a plate and cup in the second square. Then we would set a small kitchen timer for two minutes. We would explain to our son that right now he was eating dinner and in two minutes when the timer beeped, it would be dinner time. In the beginning, if he was able to come to the table when the timer beeped without screaming, he would get a reward. He loves little squishy toys and a therapist got us a few from the dollar store, so his reward (or reinforcer) was being able to squeeze a little toy for a few seconds before sitting down to eat.
A picture chart and timer are strongly recommended for children with autism, but they usually work very well for young children without disabilities also. Knowing what is coming next can relieve a lot of anxiety for the child and eliminate some negative behaviors as well. Even if you don’t have a picture chart or don’t want to use one, simple things like having meals around the same time everyday, and having a specific bedtime routine can be helpful.