Building a strong morning routine has the potential to change your child’s life.

You’ve seen the self-help titles: How to Wake Up and Conquer Your Day. What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. Morning Routine Mastery. The underlying premise of these books is that what we do first thing in the morning matters.

A morning routine isn’t just about getting out the door on time. Rather, it has the power to dictate the rest of your child’s day.

At FirstPath Autism, we know that every family is unique, and there’s no one ‘right’ way to move through the morning. So don’t be afraid to try things out. Experiment until you find a rhythm that works for you and your family.

But what are some basics that will allow you to build a helpful routine? Furthermore, how might a strong morning routine improve your child’s social skills? What’s the connection between the two?

Routines reduce stress

First, there’s this simple reality: familiar daily patterns lend structure and stability to the lives of all children. For children on the autism spectrum, the predictability of routines helps mitigate stress. If your child knows what’s coming next, there’s less worry and distraction, and that sets the tone for the rest of the day.

As Dr. Kenneth Robinson notes in, “How to Establish a Before-School Routine for Children with Autism-Spectrum Disorders,”

“[Children with autism] are prone to anxiety and worry. A routine alleviates their fears and helps them function without being in a constant state of panic.”

Along the same lines, you can implement practical measures to help the routine flow smoothly. These include laying out clothes the night before, prompting your child to use the bathroom before heading out the door, and creating a generous routine timetable so as to avoid rushing and the stress it provokes. By planning ahead, you can head off problems before they start.

Routines facilitate learning

A morning routine provides an opportunity for you to engage with your child in teachable moments. You might use visual schedules or picture cards to offer support with multi-step tasks such as getting dressed.

You can reinforce word learning by mentioning objects (i.e., toothbrush, banana, placemat) as your child encounters them. Ideally, try to name an item as your child is focused on it, rather than interrupting his or her focus on a different object.

Through your morning routine interactions, you can facilitate greater independence by first teaching a routine, then allowing your child to initiate parts of it. For example, you might spend several mornings prompting your child to put a dish in the sink, then step back one morning to see if your child initiates the task without your prompt.

As The Hanen Centre’s, “The Power of Using Everyday Routines to Promote Young Children’s Language and Social Skills” says,

“[Allowing the child to step into the role of initiator] is a very powerful experience in helping a child understand that he can take another person’s role or perspective, an important part of effective two-way social interaction.”

Where appropriate, allow your child to initiate and shape the routine alongside you. If possible, integrate your child’s preferred behaviors into the routine as reinforcers. If your child is reluctant to brush teeth each morning, you might offer 15 minutes of video game play once toothbrushing is complete.

As the Hanen Centre article observes, “If the child sees that there is a reward for following the steps of the routine, he’ll be more likely to comply.”

Routines help your child get vital sleep

A consistent morning routine reinforces a regular sleep schedule, which is key to success in school and socialization. There’s a strong connection between restful sleep and positive social interactions. Lack of sleep makes interpersonal communication a struggle.

If you feel grumpy and socially withdrawn when you don’t sleep well, imagine how your child with autism feels! Socializing appropriately takes focus and energy for your child, and sleep deprivation decreases both.

If your child struggles with falling asleep at night, a consistent wake time could make all the difference. As the Sleep Foundation article, “What to Do When You Can’t Sleep” states,

“Wake up at the same time every day. Even if you have a hard time falling asleep and feel tired in the morning, try to get up at the same time (weekends included). This can help adjust your body’s clock and aid in falling asleep at night.”

Furthermore, disordered sleep can actually skew the subtle perceptions that drive social interaction. For example, individuals with autism often have difficulty with facial recognition, and lack of sleep only exacerbates the issue.

As Dr. Jeremy Dean, “Lack of Sleep Impairs an Essential Social Ability”notes,

“Lack of sleep impairs the ability to read facial emotions …. Those short on sleep tended to think both neutral and even friendly faces were actually threatening.”

Children with autism who don’t get sufficient sleep may perceive threats where there are none, thus triggering additional stress and fight-or-flight behavior.

Finally, a consistent morning routine also ensures that your child will eat an appropriate breakfast, which is vital to promoting social skills. After all, it’s difficult to focus on anything when hunger is gnawing at your stomach!

Building a solid morning routine takes work, but when you make the effort, your child’s social skills will benefit.