Healthy Habits on the Autism Spectrum

Ron Sandison with Coach Dave Martin

By Ron Sandison

I learned to develop healthy habits by reading Coach Dave Martin’s book Make That, Break That. Most New Year’s resolutions fail within the first month; not from a lack of motivation but a failure to make the resolutions into a habit. We are creatures of habits and good habits can develop an autopilot decision-making style.

Three years ago, I had a pain in my right side and had an ultrasound which revealed a small cyst on my kidney. Before the ultrasound, I drank each week four energy drinks and a couple two litters of Mountain Dew. The cyst caused me to quit drinking energy drinks and pop. I changed my drinking habit instead of pop and energy drinks I replaced them with water and ice tea. Now if someone offers me pop, I automatically say, “I don’t drink pop.” This choice that became a habit causes me to live a healthier life and feel physically better.

For us on the spectrum decision-making is often exhausting and anxiety-provoking. Developing good habits enables us to conserve energy in the decision-making process. When we develop healthy eating habits we no longer have to decide whether to eat a candy bar or an apple. Our good habits created by our routines, kick in and by autopilot, we subconsciously decide to eat the apple.

I have many habits in life that I do by autopilot: such as driving to work, my memory work, eating healthy, taking my daily vitamins, and my exercise routine of thirty pushups a night.

Habits are rooted in routine and become harder to break the longer we do them. After we do a routine for about 90 days it becomes a habit and part of our daily life. The speed of the formation of the habit can be quicker or slower depending on the strength of the emotion we feel toward it. Habits save us time and energy because we do them automatically and don’t have to think about each steps to accomplish them.

Coach Dave Martin shares, “Our habits set us free from the responsibility of remembering how to do the vast number of routine things we must do each day just to get by. Habits liberate our minds from the strain of trying to recall thousands of details about hundreds of procedures we must do over and over simply to maintain ourselves in this demanding world.”

We on the spectrum have difficulty remembering the steps to accomplish an action and our habits formed by routine can make action automatic. Habits are composed of the cue, the behavior and the reward.

First, the cue or reminder to do the behavior. A habit is triggered by a “cue.” This can be just about anything the mind associates with the behavior or actions based on the data stored in the brain. A cue for you could be seeing McDonald’s Golden Arches causing you to crave chicken nuggets. For me the cue to do my memory work is 7:45 pm, the time I do my memory work each day after work or for my pushups 9:00 pm. With driving home from work my cue is seeing the roads and landmarks I recognized and this causes my mind to go into autopilot and accomplish the behavior of driving home. I don’t have to consciously think each day how will I get home from work unless construction work forces me to change my route. This frees my mind to think about my speaking engagements or books I am writing.

The five main categories of cues that stimulate behavior: cues that result from location (driving home), cues associated with time (memory work and pushups), cues that are generated by people (social etiquette), cues that are created by particular emotional state (happy when you see a puppy or sad when you see a friend bullied), and cues that result from an immediate response (stopping at a red light). Cues remind us of things to do and produces a predictable behavior.

Second, the behavior, the action we take in response to the cue. When driving and the light turns green you instinctively look both ways and put the petal to the gas. The cue is the light turning green and the automatic behavior is looking both ways and pushing on the gas. Most things we do are based on habits. Some good habits we should do each day are exercise and self-care like showering and brushing our teeth. After we make self-care a habit we no longer have to decide will I skip brushing my teeth to finish watching a movie. A schedule time can be the cue for doing the behavior. Motivation is what gets you started; a habit keeps you going.

Finally, the behavior leads to the reward. The reword for brushing your teeth is not having cavities or exercise is feeling healthy or eating chocolate the sweet taste. The reward is the reason our brain chooses to remember a cue and the proceeding actions leading to the behavior. The brain remembers the cue and sequence to the behavior because the reward makes us feel great. The reason we repeat a habit both the good and bad ones is because every habit produces some kind of positive feeling or physical or psychological incentive that keeps the process going.

By developing healthy habits we can replace the bad ones. Make a list of a few new habits you like to do each day. Some good habits: a daily walk, eating vegetables for a snack rather than candy or a set amount of pushups for physical strength or reading books. Start small and build on the habit to make it stronger and create “cues” to remind you like sticky notes posted around the house. Have a set time for the new habit. Maybe a chapter of a book before bedtime or twenty pushups each morning.

These new habits can uproot the bad ones like watching TV three hours a night or feasting on sugar cereal. Habits can help you transition into adulthood by taking responsibility of your life. Habits like paying your bills on time or eating healthy or going to work faithfully each day. As your family sees your good habits they will trust you with more responsibilities. Habits keep us on track to make right decision like eating healthy meals or exercising daily or reading more books while spending less time isolated with our electronics. Two of my favorite habits are the time I set aside each Thursday for writing my next book and spending Friday nights watching movie with my family.

Ron Sandison and family

Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom, published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes. Ron’s third book Views from the Spectrum was released in May 2021.

Ron frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016.

You can contact Ron at his website or email him at

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