Living in tight spaces getting you down? How to use a routine to have a date with kids around!

More than ever, parents with children at home are struggling to find space for themselves amongst this new normal of COVID-19 social distancing. But how can you make sure to continue having dates with your partner while the kids, teens or other family are around?

If you are living in tight a space with all your kids at home and possibly even your extended family, it is really important that you have some space for yourselves. This becomes even more crucial if you are caring for someone with a disability. When we have a child (or 2) who has a disability, they often need more of our time and can be very dependent on us.

This past week, my husband and I had our first “new normal” date night in while our children were around. We did it while 5 of us were sharing a one floor, two-bedroom space with no basement! How did we achieve this? By setting out a schedule for the kids to keep them occupied. As I pointed out in my previous podcast about visual schedules, even older children and teens benefit from this schedule as it takes away fights and arguments between the kids by laying out ahead of time what is expected of them.

It’s important to set up this routine where they can do most of it in one room (preferably with a door like a bedroom). The reason for this is to free up some tight living space for your date. I’ve also seen it done in reverse, where the parents take a room and set up dinner in that room.

The routine we set up looked like this:

  1. Kids eat dinner together alone: We had set up one of the bedrooms as a restaurant for them by pushing the mattress up against the wall and setting up a small folding table in the room. This played to the creative side of my girls and they spent an hour before setting the space up and even creating artwork to have their “restaurant” ready. They knew ahead of time what they were eating and had chosen it themselves so they were extra excited. For our teenager, we made sure he could choose food that was fun for him too. They had a bottle of 7up with their main meal and of course dessert. (about 30 minutes with dessert). At 14 he was a good sport going along with it and we made sure to tell him that!
  1. Kids play board game alone: Next up was a board game that the 3 kids had pre-agreed upon. This is essential to limit fights or arguments at the time when they switch to the activity. We also help ensure that the game they pick is something they have played before to avoid confusion, stress and ultimately fights…remember the goal is for you and your partner to get a chunk of time off. (this took about 30 minutes)
  2. Get ready for a movie by getting into pj’s and brushing teeth – This part is essential and I’ve used it for years with my kids. When they are excited for their next activity they are motivated to get ready for bed because they really want to do the next activity. My kids have added their own step to this by making it a game where they aren’t’ allowed to talk….this was brilliant as even though they had to pass through our date night to get to the bathroom….they did it with giggles and otherwise complete silence! (10 minutes)
  3. Movie Time: The kids watch a movie they have pre-chosen together. This is a step that creates a lot of fights for my kids. Because they are older and can stay up later we help this step by allowing them to pick 2 movies or 3 shows. This gives everyone a chance to have a choice. Another nice thing about them having to watch together is that my kids have had to watch things that the other one likes and they’ve often discovered new shows they have in common. If this won’t work for your family…no problem, have them watch separately.
  4. Bedtime Routine Book & Song: This is often the hardest transition as kids often don’t want to go to bed. They often want their parents for this part. The amazing part is, they can still get a bedtime routine by using their siblings. When I started this I had my 8-year-old daughter at the time reading to her 6-year-old sister and my 9-year-old son singing to her. Each older child picked their “role”. When we started this, they were so proud to be able to do a “parent” job. To this day my youngest daughter loves getting a song from her older brother. I couldn’t predict that this would also bring out a nurturing side of my son.

It really really important if you have younger children and children with disabilities to use a visual schedule…which would have all the steps drawn out and look something like this picture below. Remember it is not the quality of the pictures that are important, it is important that they are all there. For more information on creating a visual schedule, see my post from last week.

In all, we managed to get about 4 hours of date-time where our kids were having fun and doing something they liked that had clear expectations and guidelines.

When you are first putting this in place it is really important that if they interrupt you during one of their activities that you direct them back to the visual schedule to see what is next. For younger children or those with a disability, it may take a few date night tries to get them following the routine…don’t give up as this will set you up for years of date time to come!

For kids that can understand rules, make sure that they understand that this routine is for them to do alone and that interrupting mom and dad is only allowed if there is an emergency or the problem can’t be solved on their own. In the early years when my kids were younger, we did get interrupted more often as they were learning to be independent…but now we often can get hours of uninterrupted time.

So for all of you out there anxious for a quiet dinner or coffee time with your partner…go ahead and try it tonight! Remember that research shows that if you don’t put a step in place in the next 24-48 hours…you most likely won’t do anything at all.

Happy Date Night!

Kids out of school getting you down? Is there chaos and lack of schedule?

Many parents and their children with disabilities such as Autism, ADHD, and FASD are scrambling to cope amid the drastic changes that have essentially halted the regular routine of the whole world. While for most of us, this change of routine is very hard, on those with disabilities it can be completely destabilizing. This means you may be seeing more oppositional behaviour and possibly many more tantrums or problem behaviours.

The good news is, it may take a few days but you can change the course of the next few months for the better by establishing a routine supported by a visual schedule.

First, let’s address the importance of a routine. Without meaningful work (or school) or socialization, all of us and especially those with disabilities can feel lost and hopeless. While the rest of us can hopefully process these feelings and do something about them, those with disabilities can feel trapped and possibly not have the tools, cognitive level, or freedom to make choices to help themselves. They need help from their parents in the short term.

In this post I will talk about two things:

  1. Routines (or also known as meaningful activity or work)
  2. Visual Schedules (used to support establishing a new routine)

If you are like many of us, you are probably juggling a job working from home and the kids, putting these two steps into your child’s day will greatly help them become more independent and decrease their problem behaviours.


Establishing a routine for your child will be key in helping them get through this time.

Below is a picture of a routine I put in place last week for my 3 children who are 10,12 and 14.

As you can see the routine is very broad. However, just by putting this in place consistently with them over a weekend, they were able to be independent for my work week. Now, depending on the skill level of your child with a disability, you may need to put in place a few things in setting up the transition from one activity to another.

For parents of young children or if you have a child with a disability that has a really hard time transitioning, you will really want to be present with a timer going off at these transitions.

The key thing to keep in mind, is that the first 2-5 days may be hard, but stand strong and insist they move on to the next activity planned…even if they yell or scream. Give them a few minutes or some calm downtime, and then re-point to the picture. Don’t give up….this hard work now will ensure that your child is following the routine for weeks to come!

The positive effects should improve their mood, and lift their spirits and give them predictability in this new situation. In turn, it will give you as a parent some much needed time to either work or take some important time to yourself.

Visual Schedules

You may be asking your self….why did she post a visual schedule for kids as old as 14? The research behind this is strong, that pictures are easier to follow and to remember. My 10-year old and 12-year old are both diagnosed with ADHD. For people with ADHD, Autism and FASD, words are harder for them to remember. It is not impossible for them to follow a word routine, but it is harder. If my goal is to make them independent, I want to make sure that I have everything put in place to give them the best chance at success. In this case, it’s following the routine, with minimal parent involvement. So yes, visuals are essential for those with disabilities no matter what their language and communication level is and will make it easier for you and them.

Before I go on about visuals, I wanted to give you some basic information about visuals:

Visuals and Visual Schedules Information-Click here to download a pdf copy

1. Visuals and visual schedules are especially helpful in getting clients to follow rules or to follow routines better, or more independently. Talk to the client and/or family to find out what situations are the hardest for them. Start by supporting the client in using visuals targeting one or two specific challenges only.

Download some pictures and some blank routines that can help you get started right away-Here

2. For some clients, a hand-drawn picture is enough to support them. Other clients might need a real picture of the actual object (for example, a picture of their own bed). The higher the level of cognitive functioning of the client, the less specific to the client’s life the photos need to be. The hierarchy of visuals, from easiest to hardest to understand is as follows: picture of an actual object from the client’s life (i.e. real picture of their own bed), real picture of an object (i.e. real picture of any bed), cartoon picture, hand-drawn picture. If a client is struggling to successfully use visuals, you may need to change the type of visual presented.

3. For many clients, the exact picture used doesn’t matter as much as the words you will choose to say to describe the picture. For instance, a picture of a raincoat can be used to mean “raincoat” if you choose to name the picture using these words when you speak to the client. Or it could be chosen to represent any coat or even “hang your coat up”if you choose. What is important is to always pair the same picture with the same words, so that the client can easily learn what the picture represents.

4. Cognitively, it is easier for clients to understand visual schedules where pictures are placed from top to bottom than ones where pictures are placed from left to right. If a client is struggling with a visual schedule that has been placed horizontally, try reorganizing the pictures vertically.

5. For most clients, it is important that there be a way for the client to mark that he/she has finished each step of the visual schedule. This could be by using Velcro on the visual schedule and having the client place each picture into an envelope when completed. It could be done by using an erasable marker and having the client draw an X over each picture, as the steps are completed. Alternatively, it could be done by placing an “all done” visual (with sticky tack) onto each picture, as the task is done.

6. If the visual schedule you are using has empty spots, use a “no” picture (an X) to fill the empty spots. This can otherwise be confusing to clients.

7. Blank laminated visuals and an erasable marker can be used to draw a picture in a situation where you don’t have a picture to represent the challenging you are experiencing with a client. In a pinch, plain paper and a pencil can also work for many clients.

8. Use “uh-oh” pictures (could be a picture of someone scratching their head, a question mark, etc.) to show when something unexpected has happened. Take this picture and put it on top of the picture of the activity that has to change. For example, if the client was supposed to go to the park, but it has now started to rain, placing an “uh oh” picture on top of the park picture will help the client adapt to this change more easily.

9. A lanyard with a key ring can be used to keep the most frequently used pictures on it, for on-the-go situations. This is ideal for when families will be leaving the home or for a change of caregivers.

10. When using a first/then board, be sure the first item is always a task and that the second is always a reward. Get a list of things that are highly motivating to the client, either from the client or his/her family. Using first/then boards will not work if the reward is not something the client would really want to work towards earning.

11. Clients may likely need ongoing support to help troubleshoot the challenges they run into when trying to implement visuals. It is important to assign someone to directly support the family and to reach out to the family regularly to help talk through the challenges they are running into so that their use of visuals can be successful.

12. All sorts of different challenges can be supported by using visuals and visual schedules. Be imaginative in your use of them! Try to see things from the client’s perspective to help guide you on what might be needed to help the client’s functioning.

Important to keep in mind when implementing a visual schedule routine:

  1. Don’t Give Up!
  2. On the first day you introduce it, make sure to have some free time. If you are working, consider waiting until the weekend or if you can take a day off work, I suggest it.
  3. Show them the visual schedule and then direct them to the first activity on the list. Show them what that activity is and set the timer for the length of time you would like your child to do the activity.
  4. Always insist that they do the next activity (even if you have to take their hand and help them do it). By not giving in at the beginning, you will set this visual routine up to last for a long time.
  5. You don’t have to get too fancy….a hand-drawn stick figure drawing like the one I posted above is more than good enough. Kids are amazingly resilient and great at figuring out our poor quality adult pictures! So no excuses that you are a poor drawer!
  6. It works for older kids and adults too with disabilities….go ahead and try it!
  7. You can use it for your children without disabilities, pictures are often easier for all children to use and remember. So use it for your children with and without disabilities.
  8. Have on hand a clock or timer (for those that can’t tell time).+

6. Your child may need sub-visual schedules for each activity you have set out for the day. For example….when it is creative time some children will need a visual schedule just for that. Here is an example:


7. Research shows that after you read something, or learn something new, if you dont put it in place within the next 24-48 hours…you will never do it. So go grab a blank sheet of paper and draw a first attempt at a visual schedule for your child!

Good luck and I wish you less behaviours and more independent time for both you and your child with disabilities.


Below are some useful links to get more visual material

  1. Victories’n Autism (provides examples of schedules and activity cards that are downloadable.
  2. A Day in Our Shoes (provides printable routine schedules)
  3. Lester B. Pearson School Board Autism Centre of Excellence: Visual Starter Kit (printable materials and instructions)
  4. Lester B. Pearson School Board Autism Centre of Excellence: Downloadable Visual Schedules. *Unfortunately, these images require the Boardmaker Sofware

Sports, Autism and ADHD…What to try with these children.

Over the years, I’ve had many parents of children with Autism or ADHD say that their children have trouble fitting in in many sports. They’ve often felt desperate to find something where their child could be accepted and succeed. Sports require a lot of higher-level social skills and attention to detail. Often, children with Autism really struggle with social skills and may miss important cues from their teammates. In return, as the kids get older they often get laughed at or picked last for teams. As a result, they often jump from sport to sport trying a new one each year.

Despite this, the importance of physical activity rich in proprioceptive input (strong input to our muscles and joints) is very important for children with autism and ADHD. They can often have a lower threshold for this sense and crave it and need it for their bodies and minds to work effectively. This is why you may often see a child with Autism running and crashing into mats or at an extreme, hitting their head on a wall. The same reason why many people with ADHD crave high-intensity sports that involve running and crashing (hockey, rugby, football). They are seeking strong proprioceptive input.

My own husband who was diagnosed in adulthood with ADHD struggled himself with sports and was often drawn to more independent sports such as canoeing, skiing, hiking, and snowboarding but which still gave him the proprioceptive input he needed for his brain to stay alert and focused. He ended up excelling at these sports and still practices most of them today.

I often told parents to try Karate with their children, as it was independent but could provide the proprioceptive intensity that is needed. It also can be slowed down to allow a child who is more awkward or clumsy to go at their own pace.

When I saw this link for Autism Karate I thought the idea was amazing. I encourage families to check this out!

Other sports that have been successful for parents of children with Autism and ADHD are swimming, Canoeing (Pointe-Claire Canoe Club), skiing (both downhill and cross country), hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, horseback riding.

If your child continues to have trouble coordinating their body and really struggling with sports, you may want to consider working with an Occupational Therapist who specializes in Sensory Integration Therapy to help develop better coordination and sensory regulation.

Autism, ADHD & Passion can turn into one’s future job!

I’ve worked with people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and ADHD for a long time and often as health care professionals and parents we tend to focus on the “Disability” part of a person’s diagnosis. As I’ve spent time speaking across Quebec about Autism and other invisible disabilities, I’ve been fortunate to get to meet a ton of fantastic parents who have shared their stories with me and how they focus on the “abilities” of their children.

Many people with ASD have extraordinary strengths that sometimes are hidden by some of their sensory behaviors. Many looking in from the outside at these behaviors don’t see the strengths!

One of my most inspiring stories is from a colleague and mom with a child with autism. Her child would often spend hours drawing and creating artwork. She supported him wholeheartedly and encouraged him to continue that passion. He later turned that talent into digital design and last year was offered summer work for a company working in his town.

This next link is to Benjamin Talbot a 16-year-old artist with ASD. Check him out and the art work he is doing. Once again, this is an example of turning strengths into life work!

Benjamin’s message is as follows:

“Please, don’t be afraid of people who are autistic, we are only different. Anyway, everyone is different in some way. I have dreams and I want to realize them.”

I believe this is true for many disabilities, including ADHD. Many people with ADHD have incredible talents. Many people don’t know and understand that ADHD doesn’t mean you can’t pay attention, in fact, people with ADHD often have an ability to hyper-fixate on a task they are doing-especially if they are passionate about it. I’ve watched my husband who has ADHD when he is coding and designing a website. He can focus for hours and produce beautiful work.

I am inspired by the stories people share with me about focusing on one’s strengths! I encourage all of you to be the person that helps foster a child’s strengths and turn them into passions no matter what their “Disability” is!