HEALTHATHON: Question 8: Schedules With Autism

8. Do certain types of daily schedules help with autistic children? If so, what kind?

Dr. Kari Miller:

All kids need structure and routine to feel safe and to thrive.  Therefore, setting up supportive structures for meals, sleeping, self-care, social interaction, learning, and recreation are necessary for children to feel comfortable enough to engage in the exploration of their environments that is essential to their growth and development.


I’d like to answer this question by talking about areas that are rarely discussed— how your child’s learning is affected by movement and the body’s natural rhythms.



Movement stimulates the growth of brain cells which are necessary for learning.  It gives children the opportunity to explore the world and gather information that develops their intelligence.  The brain requires feedback in order to learn and grow, feedback that comes from interaction with the environment.  Movements allow children to express their knowledge and begin to tackle the next stage of their learning.


In particular, children who have learning issues benefit from regular movement.  Try these activities before beginning homework, and at regular intervals while working.


Encourage your child to engage in cross lateral physical activity for five minutes every hour.  Cross lateral movements engage hand and foot on opposite sides of the body.  Most of these movements are more effective when done standing.  The addition of rhythmic music provides a boost.  Some cross lateral movements students enjoy are:

  • Karate Cross Crawl:  Kick while punching or chopping with alternate hand and foot (right hand chops while left foot kicks).
  • Double Doodle.  Draw a design with both hands simultaneously.  Be sure the designs are mirror images of each other, rather than facing the same direction.
  • Brain Gym has a great book, Brain Gym, Teacher’s Revised edition available at their website:


Most students remember new information better when they talk, write or draw. For those students who remember information best by writing, provide them with a white board and erasable markers or encourage them to write on paper.  Allow your child to act out what has been read, build a model, draw a diagram or chart, sing or dance. Encourage your child to “teach” new information to others in the household.


Movement breaks that help your child focus include:  jumping on a trampoline, rolling, pushing against the wall, playing tug of war, standing on a balance board, tossing a bean bag back and forth between hands, squeezing or pulling at soft plastic hand toys.


Some other tips for helping a child be focused for learning include blowing to focus for tasks at a distance such as copying from the board and sucking on something to help near tasks such as reading.  Using long, crazy straws to drink think liquids is great.


Body’s Natural Rhythms and Preferences

These areas are important to your child’s learning:

  • Sleep effects
  • Learning naturally occurs during sleep
  • Short bursts of focuses attention
  • Novelty

Sleep is essential to survival and to sanity and to improved skills.  Interestingly, when a person sleeps, the brain is far from idle!  In fact, for only about 20% of the time is the brain actually using less energy than during periods of wakefulness.


Actually, it’s hard to determine a generalization for how much sleep is optimal.  The best way to determine how much sleep is generally good for your child is to observe and keep careful logs of the amount of sleep, any unusual circumstances, and your child’s functioning the next day.


Too much sleep can be just as devastating to your child’s academic success as too little sleep.  Both cause the brain to be less efficient, mood to be effected, processing of the environment to be inefficient, and produces less control of anxiety and frustration.  Naturally, you want to figure out how much sleep your child needs on average, and set up routines that allow for this much sleep each night.


Don’t be concerned if your child seems to need more or less sleep than others, as long as he or she is doing well.  The amount of sleep a person needs fluctuates depending upon circumstances such as their age—they need more sleep when younger, less as they mature, and more as they enter older age.  There are differences due to entering puberty, a person’s gender, a person’s nutrition, and a host of factors unique to each individual.  Some people function better if they have a nap during the day, others do not.  There is research and theory to suggest that many people respond best to a long sleep at night and a nap in the middle of the day.


Each person has a unique internal clock of sleep and wakefulness.  Help your child learn his rhythms and do his best to tackle the most challenging subjects during his most alert time of day.


During sleep, the brain engages in rhythmical activity and mountains of research have documented that individuals who “sleep on it”, in other words, who are taught something and then are asked to perform it after an interval of sleep, perform better than they did at the end of the training session.  This is even truer of learning motor sequences and performing procedures.


How can parents use this interval of sleep to help their child learn? If your child has noticeably more learning after “sleeping on it”, ask her teacher to let you preview the next day’s material one or two days before.  Ask to have the reading material and comprehension questions in advance.  Ask for the social studies assignment so it can be read before class discussions.  In the areas in which your child has the greatest learning challenges, try to get advance notice of the material and give your child the opportunity to work with it before hand and to “sleep on it.”  Naturally, this can also help to allay any anxiety your child may have about the next day.  Children who are feel inadequate in a particular class or with a particular subject will have some of that tension eased when they can work with the material beforehand, and the principle of “sleeping on it” will give an added boost to their learning.  And also, a child who is less tense will sleep better, and that will boost his performance as well!


The human mind is made for short bursts of focused attention.  Therefore, frequent changes of pace are crucial to learning.  The mind needs to reorganize and consolidate new information during non-learning periods.


The brain responds to novelty in order to learn, so let your child change aspects of his study environment when they no longer stimulate him.  Naturally, you need to be sensitive to your child’s need of comfort and security.  But the brain learns best in response to new, different and interesting stimuli, so find ways to help your child make small modifications that increase alertness.  These modifications will actually work to your child’s advantage in many ways.  For example, his brain will take greater note of the changes and become more available for other stimuli, such as concepts and skills.


Small, manageable changes that your child finds pleasing and interesting form a great platform for building a sense of safety, security and control in the environment, because they are chosen by the child and expand his awareness and knowledge. For example, use different colored paper or pens, put up a poster or picture in the work area, and change it every month or so, or change the screen saver on her computer.


A child’s storehouse of background knowledge is the support system for new learning.  Bolster your child’s supply of knowledge by taking trips, answering the relentless “why” questions, and having meaningful discussions about the nature of the world!

Amy Hummel:

Yes – there is a sense of comfort with a routine for children and adults who have autism. The thing to remember is a routine that works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. The standard form of therapy is ABA or Applied Behavioral Analysis where the child is evaluated and a plan is created based upon the therapies that are believed to work best for that individual.

Abby Twyman:

Schedules can be extremely helpful for individuals with autism, as they are for all of us. The best type of daily schedules are those which are clear and consistently used. The schedule format needs to be based on the current language and ability level of the child. If they are unable to read, then a picture schedule is likely to be the most effective. If the child is able to read, then a written schedule would probably work. For some kids who are able to read and write, I’ve found great success in them being involved in writing their own schedules. If they are unable to write, they could still participate in the schedule-making process by putting the pictures in the correct or desired order.

The number of items and specifics of the schedule is going to depend on the ability level of the child. Some kids need simple 2-part schedules with the first item being a work task or other demand and the second item being a reinforcing item or activity. For example: (1) Art; (2) Computer. For other individuals, the schedule might be more complex and include 10 or more activities. The thing to remember when developing schedules is to make sure there are reinforcing items or activities interspersed throughout the schedule so there is embedded motivation to complete the items on the schedule. Schedules are also extremely useful because some individuals have difficulty with unexpected change or alterations to routines. The schedule can be used as a way to prime them for an upcoming change in routine.

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