Reality requires flexibility. We don’t get things our way all the time, and we all have to learn to be OK with that. Infants rely on parents and caregivers to provide for them because they can’t do things for themselves. But when they start to grab the spoon from you, it’s time for them to start learning to negotiate and get along.
Behave, or We Don’t Stay
Chris (my son with autism) was born, as most babies are, pretty inflexible. He wanted his expectations met (who doesn’t?) but had to come to terms with the changeable nature of living in a family even before his little brother was born. Some of that was intentional, and some of it was just the way things are.
My mom raised me with the expectation that “you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” As such, I wasn’t a really good audience for tantrums when I became a mom, either. It wasn’t at all fun, and I didn’t make friends in stores, but there were times when I picked him up out of a full shopping cart and just walked out because he was screaming. The funny part is I only had to do it a couple of times for it to sink in: behave, or we don’t stay. Don’t think I won’t change my plans because you aren’t cooperating.
Tips for Encouraging Flexible Thinking
So here are some of the things we did to make sure we were all on the same side and could get along from day-to-day with activities, errands and appointments to manage.
- We set fair boundaries. We talked about our day and set a tentative schedule with the understanding that it was tentative. If there were times where I could foresee flex, I’d tell him. It depended on how quickly we could get through errands, or I needed one thing before we could go somewhere else… but I’d let him know up front.
- I let him set part of the schedule. He used to love going to construction sites to watch the cement mixers and dump trucks driving around, getting work done. We’d work in some time to do that at the end of our other activities, provided he had no meltdowns during the rest of the day.
- I intentionally changed things up sometimes. I was tricky that way. There were times I would intentionally switch items on the schedule just to get him to understand that things could change, and that was OK.
- We talked the whole time. I can’t overemphasize this. I reassured him that the changes were OK. I mentioned that we were driving by the library, and wouldn’t it be nice to stop in to look at the dump truck books. I warned him that we were running out of time and had to keep moving to make the next activity on time. So yes, things took him by surprise sometimes, but no, he was never blindsided.
What I’ve noticed about Chris and other kids with autism is that their ability to roll with the changes has a lot to do with being engaged in the process. If Chris doesn’t know why something changed, he’s much more likely to resist. His day suddenly seems arbitrary and uncontrolled, and that’s scary. On the other hand, if he understands why his expectations won’t be fulfilled (even if it’s a lame reason like, “Well, I thought about it after I told you my original plan, and it’s easier to do it this way because we’ll be home 30 minutes earlier”) he’s much more likely to cooperate. He wants to know what’s going on and why. That makes sense to me.