I did some spring cleaning in my office this week and one of the first things I noticed was how these very minute changes impacted some of my children with autism. One child noticed the changes, grabbed his favorite numbers puzzle and repeatedly assembled it while singing the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. He was engaged with me and paused for me to comment or sing with him. His guard was up though and he wasn’t sure about things.
Another child walked over to a set of drawers I moved across the room and simply said “no” to express his disappointment in the new look. With a chuckle, I apologized for causing his disappointment, but I liked the new spot as it gave our swing more space to sway. Later, he found a similar rainbow-colored set of drawers and attempted to pull it into my office. Great attempt, but nope.
All my toys were the same, and my office remained the overstimulating barrage of rainbows, but the arrangement was slightly different. Attuned to details, my little ones were quick to notice and react. Overall, my room is considered a “safe zone” for them and I have gained most of their trust, so the transition wasn’t too challenging.
Try viewing changes from your child’s eyes. In addition to communication, children with autism often struggle with connecting cause and effect then predicting what will come next. They thrive with routine and structure because it is repeatable and easily predictable.
Imagine you going on your first overseas vacation and have a layover in a new country where everyone speaks a different language from you. Then your outbound flight was cancelled due to weather! You’re stuck in the unfamiliar land, with unfamiliar words and no idea when you will get somewhere more familiar. The suddenness of this situation is shocking enough, but then add the language barrier and unknown surroundings. Very few of us would remain calm, I know I couldn’t.
This is similar to what our children with autism may experience when confronted with sudden changes. However, avoiding unpredictable moments will set us up for a greater dependency on routine and structure. If that was the second time your flight was cancelled, you already knew the ropes and how to rearrange your flight. Language may still pose a challenge, however you have the skills to adapt and know what to expect the more frequently these changes occur.
Consider helping your child cope with changes by periodically changing things around the house and observing how they handle the situation. Ask questions such as “Is something different? What happened? Where did it go?” to help them navigate the situation.
Try involving your child in spring cleaning tasks too! This will help them understand and problem solve through the changes and there are so many language opportunities within spring cleaning with sorting, moving, finding, explaining and describing.
Change is scary, especially when we lack the skills to communicate our frustration and are left with behaviors for expression. A seemingly harmless switch could appear devastating without support. Keep these in mind when you are preparing your child for change and start the process well before any changes occur. However, do not shy away from change and transition in your attempts to protect your child. Through experience, we learn to problem solve and cope with challenging situations. Provide your child with consistent and clear support during times of change and transition. Use play, visuals and clear "I see it's hard when ..." statements to validate his emotions. Create plans to give structure to what's about to happen, but also keep in mind that not all changes are planned. Embrace surprises and unexpected moments with confidence and your child will sense this.
Do you have any tricks to help your child cope with changes? Let us know in the comments below what works for your family.