Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Autism Educational Series—Routines—"Quirks and Chaos"

Lisa Smith is the fifty-two-year old mother of seven children ranging in ages eleven to twenty-seven. Lisa's youngest two children have special needs. Lisa's blog called Quirks and Chaos entertains and educates as she discusses parenting, autism, adoption, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and ADHD. Find Lisa on Facebook at Quirks and Chaos.
Routine is something most parents know about. Infants often fall into a schedule of eating and sleeping that a parent can set the clock by. Toddlers need routine so they will be well rested and feel secure. A parent might arrange their schedule around the child’s nap or feeding schedule, knowing just how much “wiggle room” they have before their child goes from happy to irritable. But as the child ages, the routine can be altered more with less of a price to pay. Times and routine can be changed without huge consequences. And eventually the words “change of plans” or “spur of the moment” do not strike fear into that parental heart at all. Their older child can be flexible in ways the younger child never could be. Life becomes easier for the whole family then. Unless…. Unless your child never outgrows the need for a strict routine. And the routine becomes even more important to them. And those irritable times the baby had when their routine was changed are NOTHING compared to the meltdown the older child with autism has when his routine is changed and he cannot count on the predictability his schedule offers him.

One of the first things we hear about when we set foot into the world of autism is routine. A child with autism often “needs” a strict routine. It is true that a huge percentage of children with autism have far less anxiety if they know what to expect next. Many children with autism do much better if they have a routine they can count on and their routine is kept. Unscheduled events, unfamiliar surroundings and unexpected happenings are met with resistance and even the dreaded meltdowns we in the autism community know so well. Something that seems so small to us might be a deal breaker to a person with autism. They “need” to be able to know what comes next.

Sometimes a caregiver can set a precedent for a person with autism before we even know what happened. Driving the same route several times in a row to get to your destination is one example of this. Sitting in the same seats around the kitchen table at every meal, using the same door every time you enter and exit your home, always using the same color or style of cup (or almost anything else), these things can become “set in stone” for the person with autism. Once a precedent is set it will not be easily changed. If you have a child with autism and have not experienced the rigidity and importance of routine then count yourself very lucky. Some of us have had the experience of negotiating with autism for even very small changes in our child’s routine and come out of the negotiations feeling victorious if we even got a concession as small as our child accepting a different color toothbrush or a different blanket on the bed.

Having said all of that, it is very important for the person with autism to learn flexibility, which is much easier said than done. My son Tate is my sixth child. Because Tate had so many older siblings involved in many activities, his schedule as an infant and toddler was nothing like I had adhered to for his oldest siblings. Tate had to take many naps in his car seat instead of in his crib. He spent many evenings in a stroller sitting at a ball field. He visited their schools for parties and other events. He was held, touched, crowded, kissed, talked to, and played with all day long in a variety of setting by a variety of different personalities. Long before I knew Tate had autism I was providing “therapies” that were teaching him to be flexible. However, even with that lack of unbending routine, Tate managed to develop some need for it. A detour sign when driving from one town to another could cause Tate a lot of anxiety. Changing the location or the style of the Christmas tree we used one year almost ruined everyone’s Christmas because Tate was so miserable about it. A parent being out of town for a few days can be torturous for my son. These things may seem like small adjustments to make for most of us but the anxiety they can cause a person with autism is far too real and painful to be counted as small. Routine equals security for the person with autism. Knowing what comes next and being able to count on that sameness can keep anxiety at bay. Unpredictability is the proverbial fingernails on the chalkboard when you live with autism.

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