In my post the other day I mentioned the fiasco caused by my encounter with a new cereal, and since this I have been noticing that many of us are creatures of habit. Think about it: how many of us have a favourite mug, a place we like to park the car at work that we feel is our spot, or a place we usually sit at the dinner table? I think these familiar habits give us a feeling of being grounded and belonging: we have our place, or our things and there is a comforting predictability to that. Now- think about how unsettling it can be when something interrupts that routine- even though it may only be a quick flash of a feeling that we can usually work around or suppress.
I have been wondering about my own struggles with change, and how this connects with the challenges faced by children with autism. My first reaction to sweeping change that comes from above (top down business model – or perhaps more spiritual…) is often resistance. I don’t want to do things differently if I feel what I am doing is working, efficient, logical, effective, familiar, or comfortable. I suppose I carry a bit of that old ‘if it ain’t broke…’ attitude around with me, and I am willing to bet that I’m not alone in this.
Transitions and change can be difficult for children with autism, and can at times trigger reactions or behaviours that are challenging to navigate. A change in routine, a change in plans, a change in environment, a change of activities, or even a change in the furniture layout, lighting, or sound, might be the culprit that causes a dramatic meltdown. Understanding that this reaction is an extension and possibly a magnification of our own experiences with change may assist us in understanding the experience of those with autism.
It sometimes takes me a while to process the idea of something new, and warm to it. There are tools I use to handle change and I can shift and maneuver strategies depending on the need or situation:
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of strategies, but the point is there are quite a number of them and they just seem to come to me as needed. I don’t really have to consider them in a metacognitive way- and I am not sure that I can recall having ever learned them as discrete skills. They are just there for me as readily available resources or cognitive skills that I have somehow picked up along the way.
But what if I didn’t have these skills or strategies? What if I lacked the perspective of others, or the episodic memory to connect to another time when things worked out? What if I had challenges in anticipating the reactions or perspectives of others and their responses or behaviour seemed random and confusing to me? What if I struggled with reading non-verbal communication, and with understanding nuance, figurative language, and the intent of others? What if I had to work doubly hard to try to unwind the complex unwritten social rules of the classroom, the hallway, and the playground and was often in trouble for breaking them? What if the world came at me unevenly and my reactions seemed uneven to others… how tightly then, would I be clinging to the familiar for comfort??? How hard would I be working to rein in the world, even a little piece of it, to bring order and make it predictable? I can’t help but wonder if resisting change would be almost a survival technique.
So then maybe… if those of us who are neurotypical consider these challenges and then recall our own struggles with handling change or the unexpected, we might be a little closer to understanding the experience of children with autism. We might even find that we can share our own thinking and strategies to assist those who are struggling. The skills for handling change that many of us use intuitively can certainly be taught as cognitive strategies… and we might even find that examining our own skills in this way strengthens and improves them for us too!!
30 Days of Autism is a project designed to promote social understanding and offer a glimpse into the perspectives of those whose lives are touched by ASD.
© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2011)