Here are some ideas to help your autistic child become more flexible in tough situations.
When our kids are in their comfort zone, things are humming along. There are no meltdowns, they are happy, everyone around them tends to be happy. Being in the comfort zone allows our kids to anticipate what is coming, have a rhythm and know how to act. Yet, this is not how life works. All too often things change, either by our own doing or by others. When things change and we are comfortable, this is when fear, anxiety, and meltdowns creep in. As parents, you can help your child get comfortable with the uncomfortable when situations change, managing the emotions that come with change.
As our children get older and become young adults, this is a great time to start integrating alternatives to routines. Yes, this seems contrary to things practitioners teach children and families, yet, as a practitioner of young adults, this is the most helpful skill I can coach. There are not many things I can guarantee, but one thing I can guarantee is things will change throughout life. If we can teach our children and especially young adults how to become comfortable with uncomfortable situations, they are more likely to manage their emotions and be able to critically think about how to handle the situation instead of robotically walking through circumstances.
So how can parents and guardians start to integrate small changes within routines to help teach flexibility and a sense of comfort in new situations and when conflict arises?
Some ways to help your child handle change better:
Oh no, there is construction!
Some clients tell me they typically take the same roads or bike paths. This allows them to know exactly how long it will take them to get to places like work, school or the store. Knowing these details is very comfortable and allows for a sense of control. Yet, what happens when there are road cones and closures?
This can be a very stressful situation and sometimes results in anxiety and outbursts. To help manage these circumstances, it is good to know about alternative routes. So, this is a good example of taking a routine and trying something a little uncomfortable. Try taking a few different paths or roads home at various times, so they, too, become familiar. If a road or path is closed, knowing other options that are familiar may lessen the emotions of seeing a closed sign.
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Brand name items at the store
When it comes to grocery shopping, many of us have noticed that our favorite products may not be on the shelves right now. Many of us have turned to alternative brands when purchasing our groceries. Clients have shared with me that when they cannot find their go-to items, this is a point of stress and has caused meltdowns in store aisles.
In preparation for going to the store, I have practiced with clients how to identify alternatives to what they are looking for and add those to their grocery list, for example, peanut butter. When we start to think about what brands there are, Jiffy, Skippy and Peter Pan may be the ones we think of. From these options, we write down what the client’s top three preferences are to prepare for the eventuality that their first pick may not be available. There is comfort in knowing that your child can have options when he or she prepared for situations like this at the grocery store.
Meeting new people and creating small talk
This is by far one of the most uncomfortable situations clients describe to me; it is a common situation we all find ourselves in on an almost daily basis. We meet new people at school, the check-out line at a store, at work and in social groups. We need to make connections and say “hello” in order to get to know the person, which can be very stressful. For these types of situations to become more comfortable, we must practice small talk or ice breakers. Common icebreakers or phrases you can practice with your child or young adult are:
- “Hello, how are you?”
- “How is your day?” Wait for a response and reply, “I am having a good day, thank you for asking.”
- “Has the store been busy today? It seems like it was while I was shopping.”
- “My favorite class is _____, what is your favorite class?”
The next step in small talk is to be prepared to respond when a question is asked back. Asking your child or young adult to actively listen to what is being said so he/she can respond is key. Your child should provide a response to keep the discussion going. This will help children find common interests, maybe even lessening the anxiety of talking with new people. In the end, they may even make new friends!
Ideally, a parent, guardian or another support person should be with your child or young adult to help ease them into these types of situations. Practice is key to making uncomfortable situations feel more comfortable.
By discussing options ahead of time, your child or young adult may be able to anticipate or think about alternatives to how they will respond. In today’s world, we are consistently seeing changes with our schools, workplaces and social networks. Learning to be flexible takes time and effort, even more so for our kids on the spectrum.
This article was featured in Issue 121 – Autism Awareness Month