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Staying Structured and Engaged in this Challenging Time

Individuals on the autism spectrum may be feeling particularly unsettled during this time. People around them are behaving differently and may be showing anxiety. Routines, on which many are so reliant, may be changing. The adults in their families may be working from home or not at all, and their schools might be closing. Access to the outside might be limited.


Use visual supports

If your loved one has a very difficult time with change, such as school being closed, there are strategies you can use. Increasing structure can often alleviate anxiety and stress, and even the most verbal individual often can’t rely on verbal information alone.

Using a visual schedule or to-do list provides some control of the situation and in turn may reduce anxiety. The schedule itself prepares the individual for the transitions, offers control over the day, provides a predictable and visual representation of what will be happening, promotes organization and time-management, and can provide the person with a tool to make choices related to the order of events within their day. Schedules most often do not make the person more rigid, but in fact are a great tool to plug in new activities and transitions that the person might enjoy but wouldn’t have tried if they hadn’t already bought into using a schedule. Depending on the individual, a schedule might be developed using pictures, photos, in written form, calendars, or electronic formats. Of course, whenever possible, it should be developed with or by the individual with ASD.

A change card is another powerful tool that can be used to prepare the individual for something out of the ordinary. The change card is plugged into the schedule, letting the person know that what usually happens at this time each day is not happening and will be replaced by an alternate activity. For example, if you usually go to the YMCA every day in the afternoon but you now cannot, you can plug in a change card indicating that instead, you will be doing an alternate activity that the person prefers. Or simply add the card or word that represents the new activity.


When we are stuck at home

An additional important strategy is to try alternate activities and create new routines. We know that each person has individual preferences and strengths, but we hope these ideas will help during this time.

To support need for movement, physical activity in home and nearby home

  • bouncing on a therapy ball or small trampoline while sitting in front of a fan
  • walking up and down the steps
  • using a Wii or other interactive games or online videos that involve movement
  • dance parties
  • freeze dance
  • yoga, stretching, exercise routines (you can search YouTube for free kids Yoga routines, dance lessons, and exercise activities)
  • modified or silly versions of soccer, basketball, tee-ball, golf, cornhole, hot potato, horse
  • animal races
  • chase/tag games
  • com – movement and mindfulness activities for children and families
  • search and learn “Just Dance” videos on YouTube
  • take turns being the exercise “instructor” – serious or silly moves
  • scavenger hunts – inside and out (e.g., find specific color objects around the house; find colors of the rainbow on a walk outside. Take pictures.)
  • homemade obstacle courses – Plan a course – crawl across the couch, crash in a pile of pillows, crawl under the table, jump five times, etc. Time each other, who is the fastest?


Arts and crafts

  • DIY glitter bottles
  • Sand art
  • Finger painting/shaving cream painting
  • Make your own musical instrument (beans/rice in paper plates/soda bottle)
  • DIY lava lamps (water bottle/food coloring/oil/water/Alka seltzer)
  • Dot markers
  • Pinecone bird feeders
  • Making and flying paper airplanes
  • Sidewalk chalk
  • Salt crystal snowflakes (salt/mason jars/pipe cleaners/clothes pins)
  • Mosaics – rip up pieces of colored construction paper and turn into artwork
  • Glue objects on paper – beads, sequins, pieces of paper, popsicle sticks, whatever is light enough to be glued down; make patterns, shapes or just whatever they do on their own


Homemade or low-budget games

  • Go Fish
  • Balloon toss (don’t let it touch the floor)
  • Statues (who can stay still the longest)
  • Freeze dance
  • Red light/Green light
  • Musical chairs
  • Uno, Old Maid, other card games
  • Puzzles
  • Bubbles
  • Charades – write simple actions on paper and take turns acting out
    • Whisper in their ear and pair with written word for kids not reading yet (examples: eat, sniff, jump, run, march, kick, open, smile, frown, cry, laugh, spin, clap, brush teeth, brush hair, put on shirt, put on pants, wash, dance, etc.)
  • Cup Stacking – Yes, it’s a sport


Fun ways to engage in routines, tasks

  • Involving preferred figures or toys in routines (Woody needs to clean up toys too!)
  • Following the leader – Can you do what I do? I’ll copy you too! Take turns imitating each other (parent may need to lead a majority of the routine)
  • Themed bath nights – all the Barbies are having a pool party on Tuesday… the sea creatures go to the beach on Wednesday
  • Bath crayons
  • Have your child be the teacher; have them teach you (or their favorite toy characters) how to complete routines like handwashing; video record it and allow them to watch it back for extra fun
  • Baking, cooking activities


Toy play at functional and symbolic levels

Pretend play themes (with toys or acting it out)

  • Mealtime
  • Bath time
  • Library
  • Grocery Store
  • Dentist’s Office
  • Doctor’s Office
  • Vet Clinic
  • Rescue (firemen, policemen)
  • Post Office
  • Airplane Voyage
  • Restaurant
  • Science Lab
  • Teacher
  • Hairdresser/Salon

Dramatic Play themes (act it out!)

  • Animals
  • Superheroes vs. Bad Guys
  • Robots
  • Ninjas
  • Cowboys
  • Community helpers
  • Characters from preferred movies, videos, and shows (e.g., Moana, Doc McStuffin)
  • Post office – write and “mail” each other letters
  • Bear hunt (or other “hunts”)
  • Treasure hunt
  • Be the teacher, parents/caregivers are the “students”


Sensory play/science experiments


  • Homemade playdough
  • Water beads
  • Creating “bean bins” to hide animals in
  • Creating an area for water play, incorporating tools for pouring/etc. for other sensory spectacles
  • Homemade slime (starch, glue, and water)
  • Finger paints or shaving cream paints
  • Make sensory bags out of Ziploc bag, hair gel, food coloring. You can add little toys, glitter, googly eyes, or beads too. Seal Ziploc bag with duct tape.
  • Planting seeds and teaching your child to water and take care of it
  • Homemade bath bombs
  • Moon dough (flour/oil/food coloring/essential oils-optional)
  • Magic snowballs (baking soda/vinegar/food coloring/dish soap-optional)
  • Homemade gunk/goo


  • Bubbles for outside play
  • Homemade bubble blower
  • Homemade volcanoes (baking soda, vinegar, and food coloring)
  • The classics: Access to pin wheels, pom poms, and glitter!


  • Add essential oils to water beads, homemade playdoh, or rice bins for a two-in-one (tactile and smell)
  • Bake simple recipes and have blind “tastings” (can you guess what it is?)
  • Blind smell tests! Soak cotton balls in essential oils and put them in bags
  • Simple cooking lessons (pizza bagel, sandwich, frost cupcakes)


Other ideas

  • Making “movies”
  • Listening to or reading a series of novels with the family (e.g., Harry Potter)
  • Adult coloring books, dot to dot books
  • Listening to podcasts
  • Writing letters, making cards for family and friends
  • Cincinnati Zoo Daily Facebook Live – 3 pm
  • Puzzle Apps for Kids – Take pictures of anything and turn them into easy puzzles for kids online
  • Making family, friends, favorite characters/places/themes image collages
  • Write a silly story, poem or song together – take turns writing a part and you type it up and then read it at the end


Fun and Educational Websites


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