Why children with autism need routines at home

Children thrive on routine. All children learn best from repetition, and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) especially appreciate predictability and patterns. Establishing routines at home can promote positive bonds between children and caregivers and ease the unpredictability of everyday life for young children.

Some families like the idea of having structured homes with lots of predictability, while other families succeed with a more flexible lifestyle. Regardless, certain activities like mealtimes and bedtimes occur daily, so most families find creating patterns around these activities helpful.

A step-by-step guide to establishing a home routine

The following steps will show you how to create and carry out a routine. We’ve used the example of a bedtime routine to show you how you can apply these tips.

Step 1

Identify each step of a task you’d like your child to complete, and list the steps.

Example: The task is to get ready for bed. The steps to get ready for bed are:

  1. Brush teeth.
  2. Wash face.
  3. Read one bedtime story.
  4. Turn off the light.

Step 2

Use the steps to create a schedule. Use whatever form of schedule works for your child, like a picture essay, task list or video model.

Example: Take a picture of your child completing each step. Create a visual schedule he can refer to while completing the routine. Post the visual schedule in his room and bathroom.

Step 3

Use timers or alarms to signal when the schedule will begin or to allot a certain time to a step.

Example: Set an alarm for 7 p.m. that your child can hear so he knows when his bedtime routine should begin. Use a time to make sure that he brushes his teeth for a full two minutes.

Step 4

Refer to the schedule throughout the routine. Provide praise or other reinforcement for completing steps.

Example: Prompt your child to point to the step on the visual schedule while he completes the step.  As steps are completed, give him descriptive praise, like “Good work brushing your teeth all by yourself.”

Step 5

Be consistent. Complete every step of the routine every time.

Example: Complete the bedtime routine in the same order every night.

Whatever routine you decide to promote at home, remember that it takes time for children to learn. Be consistent, and don’t give up. Once your child begins to complete the routine without help or problem behavior, he may no longer need visual supports. Allow these supports to gradually disappear as the need for them lessens.

Some children become so attached to routines that they become upset at any change. It’s important that you help your child develop a little flexibility as well.

Once a routine is firmly established, allow for naturally occurring changes, such as changing the routine’s location when staying over at a family member’s house or adding a new step, like flossing after brushing teeth. This will help the routine feel safe and helpful but not rigid and compulsive.

Read more about tracking your child’s behavior to learn more about helping establish routines.


We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.