The Stress of Change for kids on the Spectrum

Happy August! Positive Adoption is continuing the series on autism this month. Hope you are enjoying our posts!

We have had some major happenings in the Positive Adoption family this past month, some positive, some negative- Camp Lemon-Lime, a wedding, two deaths, family visits and more- which led me down the path of the post today. Either one of these can be a major trigger for kids on the spectrum and that is difficult for our traditional parenting minds to understand. We expect our children to feel stress when negative events occur, such as rain on a day we planned to swim, a car breaking down, a long wait in a doctor’s office, but it is difficult to accept and plan for those exciting, joyfully anticipated events having the exact same effect. It may be a hike on the trail, a visit with family or friends or a much awaited vacation.

A child on the spectrum having a meltdown before events he wants to attend is baffling and predictable at the same time.

It comes down to self-regulation. Hyper and Hypo sensitive children with a stress shaped brain cannot regulate their responses. When an activity is novel, that is new in the sense that it is a change, whether it is going to get ice cream or walking to answer the door when a child is in the middle of something, or making a S’more after a long hike in the woods.

These novel events are stressors that can trigger a response that seems out of whack or off the chart. I have found this to be true with children from hard places as well as children on the spectrum. Same is the name of the game for them. Those kids like every event on the schedule to be the same every day and if verbal, my respond with protests such as,

“We don’t do it that way!  We always _______” or

“This is computer time!”

or “We need to _______________!”

I have patterns I follow when preparing for an event or an outing. I make lists, gather items on the list and put them on a table, I do things like wash the kids shoes the night before, make sure the house is tidy before I leave. I vacuum the house after company leaves. We all have habits that make life more predictable for ourselves and give us a bit of control over our environment.

And, yet, we parents are blindsided when our child meltdown before an event, EVERY TIME. We may believe our child is trying to sabotage the event and stay home instead. Most times, this isn’t the child’s intention, he doesn’t have the ability to switch gears and regulate at the same time.

This brings me to two highly effective habits that parents can employ:

1. Proactivity.

Take some time for observation. What is throwing your child off? Are you a fly by the seat of your pants parent? Do you say at the last possible moment, “Let’s go! Get in the car! We’re going the the bookstore!” And the child melts down even though it is his favorite place? Or once you go out to run a few errands, you keep adding on odd stops causing more stress to your overwhelmed child?

Do you run around in a flurry barking orders before an outing (guilty). Imagine being the child who cannot see your mental or written list of what needs to be done and only sees you running around like a crazy woman (guilty).

Involve your child in the process. I can’t go into tons of strategies at length, because here are a few suggestions.

Prepare the child ahead of time. Keep a calendar up and refer to it often, letting the children know ‘how many sleeps’ and what is going on during the week. You can use pictures, symbols and different colors to denote events.

On the day of an event, have the child help you prepare. Make a written or picture schedule for him to use and be prepared to help him follow it. This is a hands on attachment building activity. Make sure you set aside time for it. If you are a last minute type, you will have to form a new habit for sake of your child and your sanity.

2. Ignoring.

No matter how many strategies you employ or how proactive you are, you child will still have some self-defeating behaviors. He will meltdown even though he wants to to to Gamestop and pick up that new game. He will freeze and flee even though he wants to ride in the kayak. He will balk at novel events.

This is where ignoring comes in. I’m not saying ignore the child completely. Just step over him and put the cooler in the car for the picnic. It’s okay if he cries for a few minutes. You’re doing this for his greater good. As long as he is not hurting himself or his siblings, ignoring is allowed.

Most importantly, don’t give up and stay home. If you do, this will become a self-defeating habit. You will begin to resent your child and feel trapped. Instead, use the habits of being proactive by preparing our child and including him in the process. When necessary, use the power of ignoring some behaviors to get out the door for his, and your greater good.

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