Adjusting to the Changing World

October 2, 2014
Many times, I have heard that children with autism do not like changes in their environment or their daily schedules. That might be true for many individuals with autism. It is certainly true with Robert. He scans every new place he enters, and from that time on, he attempts to prevent any changes. If he notices, for instance, that the keys are kept on certain shelf, he will always put keys on that place, no matter where he finds them.
I also many times heard the conclusion that many “specialists” on autism deduced from this observation. “Since the children with autism don’t like changes, their environment should remain as unchangeable as possible.” Thus, the specialists advise that the same activities in the same places should fill the days of children with autism.
Of course, complying with such suggestion would reduce even further ability of children with autism to adjust to changes, and consequently will result in limited opportunities to learn and experience new things.
That is what my son’s teachers in his first (private) school realized many years ago, and that is something that they and I have tried to address by introducing “controlled” changes to Robert’s environment.
The most important tool in moderating the environment is language. The problem is, that Robert’s language was and remains very limited. But it still can be used in very simple forms.
In his private school, Robert wanted always to sit in the same chair at the table. Moreover, he wanted all his classmates to sit exactly at the same places every day. That led to problems, because not everybody in the classroom would comply with Robert need for sameness. One of the ideas to remedy the situation was to introduce place mats with children names written on them, and move them around. Their placement was supposed to control where the children sat. Moving them around would result in children switching their chairs. Thus, not the past, rigid arrangement controlled this aspect of the environment but the words written on movable place mats. This was a huge step toward flexibility.
The words can introduce change, prepare children for it, and give them tools to deal with any alteration of their worlds.
Changes are part of life and thus arming children with autism with means that would allow them to accept and adjust to different arrangements of surrounding them space and time is a necessity.
Unfortunately, the public school, Robert attended for last eight years was not capable of similar programing. The mantra, that the environment should be as stable as possible to prevent discomfort of a child with autism ruled unchallenged. Consequently, only unpredictable alterations of Robert’s environment provided opportunity to practice adjusting to changes. But that not always goes smoothly.
Just today, Robert was riding a horse. It is and activity, he completed almost every week for last few years without any problem. But today, as I observed him, he stopped, pointed toward the entrance to the arena, and kept repeating something quickly and rather loudly. No, he didn’t scream, but he didn’t whisper either. It was clear, that he was agitated. I didn’t understand his speech but I guessed that there was something in the arena, that wasn’t there on any of the previous occasions- a chain in the doorway, separating arena from the rest of the barn. I knew, that Robert wanted it to be removed.
Removing the chain to satisfy Robert was the last option to consider, because it was important that Robert learn to tolerate the chain on the door during his riding. Asking Robert to get of the horse, was not a good idea either, because it would signal to him that he did something wrong. And Robert hated that feeling. With the instructor’s consent, I promised Robert that the chain would be removed after he completes three more rides around the arena. After he circled the arena three times, the chain was removed. The lesson, by the way, was over too.
I know now what change Robert has to be prepared for before the next lesson. Now it is time to use words as a mitigating tool. I will talk to Robert about the chain in the entrance to the riding arena as something to be expected and tolerated. I hope, my words do the trick.

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