Morning Routines for Autism

Morning Routine For Autism

If you find yourself struggling to get through the morning with your autistic child, you’re not alone. There are many parents who frequently question how they can reduce the hectic stress that comes with getting ready for the day.

There’s so much to fit in the morning schedule, and unlike other parts of the day, mornings usually provide a limited amount of time, and a plethora of things that need to get done.

To deal with this, stressed out parents find themselves searching for printable morning routine charts. They seek advice from other parents in autistic support groups online, and among friends and family.

There’s nothing wrong with either of these methods, however, there’s a trick to it that may get overlooked.

A good routine for the morning starts the with night before.

Preparing The Night Before

There are plenty of articles about how to get your autistic child to bed at night. The focus here is going to assume that a bedtime routine is in place, and talk more about what you can do as the parent.

Don’t be alarmed; it’s nothing that you aren’t already doing. In many cases, it’s a matter of doing some chores that are usually left to the morning- the night before.

There is a certain amount of tasks that simply have to wait until morning. Getting dressed, eating breakfast, and brushing teeth can’t be done early. However, the list of things that can be done the night before is fairly plentiful.

  • Pack lunches
  • Pack bookbag
  • Lay out clothes for the next day
  • Taking a bath/showering
  • Finding the left and the right shoe.
  • Locating Keys and work items

The possibilities change depending on who is involved, but the point remains the same. Autistic children can find mornings to be complex and high pressure. For starters, there’s a limited amount of time in which a lot of little things need to happen- every day.

Those “little things” can become insurmountable, or even irritating to a child with autism. This is especially true when a change to the routine takes place. When you combine all of these factors, the smallest failed task can quickly derail an entire day.

The best defense to an effective morning routine, is rooted in a strong offense the night before.  Reduce what needs to get done in the morning, and in turn, you will reduce the pressure and fast paced nature of getting ready for the day.

Communication Is Key

Communication CardsMany autistic children benefit from the use of communication cards. Visual cue cards are a highly effective tool with autistic children that need to complete a routine of actions.

This tool can be purchased, or made at home. Each card is a picture of a daily activity, with the words for the activity at the bottom.

You simply organize the cards on the strip as shown, and make sure they are in chronological order of the schedule you wish to keep. The cards are then removed from the chart as each task is completed.

When using communication cards it is important that the child removes the cards from the chart as each task is completed. This creates a need for them to interact, and keeps them aware of what needs to be done next.

Simply set it up the night before, review it, and then have them acknowledge when each step is completed by removing the card from the chart.

(Tech Options)

gotalkThere are also options that are a little more technologically advanced, such as the GoTalk devices.

These work very well throughout the day, and can be programmed to say many different phrases to best suit your needs. Since many children tend to favor electronics over cue cards, this may be an option as well.

The draw back to these devices, versus the communication cards, is the price difference. The advantage is the portability and versatility of use for communicating with non-verbal autistic children.

Whether you plan to buy these types of tools, or make them yourself, the point is to remember that you need to establish communication as part of your strategy for making morning routines less stressful, and more productive.

With non-verbal children this may be difficult starting out, and even push to the point of feeling hopeless. The best you can do in that situation is take a break for a day, or week even, and then try it again.

As with anything involving raising autistic children, this tactic may not work for every situation. In that case, if you find that you are trying these methods, and they aren’t working at all- cut you losses and maybe return to try again at a later date.

Managing Expectations

Another large part of getting an autistic child ready in the morning is understanding the impact of your expectations. If the parent wakes up focused on how difficult the morning will be; they’ll likely be correct in their assumption.

That isn’t to say that the opposite is true, however, a negative attitude simply doesn’t help.

Remember, in wee hours of the morning, cooler heads will always prevail. The expectations that need to be managed are two-fold, and highly dependent upon one another.

The parent needs to be realistic in their expectations of their child’s behavior, and most importantly, more demanding of their expectations for their own behavior.

Managing Expectations For The Child

An autistic child is likely to experience difficulty when moving from one activity to the next. This is because each activity is filled with so many things that can divert their attention.

This behavior is nothing new for the average person either. It’s simply a heightened version of what happens whenever there’s an accident on the freeway.

It doesn’t matter how small the town is either. If there’s an accident, everyone forgets how to drive, and eventually everything stops.

The difference here is that people who aren’t autistic realize that the traffic is slowing, and that they have somewhere to be. For an autistic child, virtually any object or activity can be as distracting as a 10 car pile up, except there is no realization that there is somewhere they need to be- the distraction becomes all that matters.

When you consider this as a reality, it really makes sense why it’s so hard to move from one activity to the next. This is also where the communication cards come back in to play, when the parent is trying to regain their focus.

Your child can’t walk all over the parent, just because they’re autistic. So behavioral boundaries still need to exist. Like anything else with autism, there are more than one set of boundaries that should be understood by the parent, or caregiver:


Tantrums are behavioral outbursts that are in pursuit of a goal. When a child doesn’t get their way, and becomes aggressive, they’re throwing a tantrum.

In this situation, giving in will only promote more of this behavior down the road. This doesn’t mean the parent can’t give in every once in a great while (after all, their patience needs to be kept at a healthy level), but the rule should be that outbursts do not grant the child the prize that they were seeking in the first place.

This process causes more outbursts in the immediate future, but will all but guarantee fewer down the road. The reason is because autistic children feel safer, and more balanced when they experience consistency in the world around them.

This may be a hard concept to see when they’re busy hitting their parents, whose only desire is to stick to the schedule; but it’s true.

Like any child, teaching them that tantrums get them what they want only leads to more tantrums, and less control by the parents. This simply can’t be afforded by the parent to an autistic child.

If morning routines are new to the child, then it may be wise to tough it out, and get up earlier. This is another solution that takes its toll in the short term scheme of things, but the long term benefits are well worth it.


Meltdowns are similar to tantrums with one major exception; with meltdowns, even the child can’t come to grips with why they are so upset. A tantrum, as we just discussed, is the result of a desire that isn’t being met. A meltdown, is when the senses have become overloaded for the child, and they simply can’t process anything. 

If the parent is dealing with meltdowns on a daily basis, there is no guarantee for what will prevent the situation. However there are some tools and ideas that may coax the child back to reality:

  • Chewers – Provides a tool for STIMMING (self stimulation)
  • Weighted Blankets – Provide compression, soothing effect
  • Crunchy Foods – Provides a similar soothing effect related to proprioception (self awareness)
  • Noise Canceling Headphones – Many autistic children find these soothing and relaxing.
  • Fidget Toys – The variety of these toys provides plenty of options for STIMMING and redirecting focus.
  • Singing Favorite Songs – Pick their favorite nursery and sing it calmly but in a positive tone of voice.
  • Reading Their Favorite Book – Just like singing, memorize a few lines from their favorite book and recite it in a soothing yet upbeat voice.

Metldowns require a more hands off, and patient approach. Even more so than tantrums in a lot of ways. When dealing with a tantrum, engagement is an effective tactic for redirecting behavior, and pushing onward with the routine. With meltdowns, engaging the child has the opposite effect, and will typically make the child’s behavior go from bad to worse. That’s why it is important to understand, and empathize with the differences between these behaviors. Additionally, these behaviors deserve the credit for being mildly, to entirely, out of the child’s control.

Create Incentives

The nature of autism is varied from one child to the next. The point of the situation is that tantrums require consistency in response from the parents- and patience! Patience, patience, patience. Having patience doesn’t mean that you aren’t supposed to interact in order to push past the behavior, quite the opposite. Tantrums require interaction, and incentives to keep the child moving from one activity to the next. Again– the communication cards are a great tool for this. The incentive becomes completing the list of cards, and the child can see when they are close to done. Very effective tool.

No matter if it’s a meltdown, or a tantrum, there needs to be incentives to move the situation along. With meltdowns, this will need to wait until the child is all but out of the meltdown itself. You’ll notice they are coming out of it when they start looking at objects or interacting with things in the room. This is usually a sign that they are coming out of it, and may being responding to incentives and/or bribes to get back on track for the day. The incentives be a toy, or any of the tools described above in the “meltdowns” section of this page.

In Summary

When trying to establish a morning routine for an autistic child, consistency is key. The parent will need to adjust depending on whether or not the child is experiencing a tantrum, or a meltdown, as described above.

Sadly, the parent has to accept that the goal of getting through each and every day without a tantrum is unrealistic. There will be tantrums, and there will be meltdowns. The perspective of the parent, and the amount of preparation that has been done (packing lunches, laying out clothes for the next day, etc.) will have a large impact on how difficult of a process morning routines need to be.

There is no magic cure for the behavioral issues that come with autism spectrum disorder, however, creating strategies and sticking to consistent rules will go a long way to combat the situation.

Create a routine, figure out which devices work best for communication with your child, and stick to the plan. Eventually patience will prevail, and the process of getting ready for the day will go from tragic to manageable.

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