Friday, March 18, 2016

The Ability to Bend, and Bounce Back

As so often happens, I've found another area that started out being important for Ethan but has ended up being a vital tool for not only the other kids, but myself.

Today I'd like to talk about flexibility and resilience.

I was not the most flexible child. Having my plans changed, being disappointed and yet able to move on and maintain a cheery disposition was not a huge part of my inner make-up. I can recall every slight; every let-down. In kindergarten, for example, I remember the day our class was supposed to visit the hospital for my very first field trip ever, but was cancelled at the last minute. We never got to go the rest of the year, and I felt slighted. I missed out on the kindergarten field day that year because I had gotten stiches, and remember sitting at home, crying in my room. I think I felt disappointed until the next year's field day. When I was older if there was a restaurant I REALLY wanted to eat at and it ended up being closed or too crowded, I had a hard time getting past the huge flood of disappointment that would wash over me.

I could go on and on. The point is, I was fairly lacking in these areas that are well known to be some of the foundations of emotional intelligence -- i.e., the ability to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior. And I used to think this was something that maybe could improve with time and maturity. But now I've realized it also takes practice. Even better is practicing from a very early age.

Which brings us to autism. We've all heard it said that one of the hallmarks of people on the spectrum is their aversion to a change in routine. Autistic people tend to have trouble being flexible and bouncing back if their routine has been disrupted. I can think of no better way to address that than to begin challenging it, in baby steps, early on.

First, I can't emphasize this enough: every autism is different. We have to be respectful of each person's individual make-up and how much pushing is too much pushing. If your child throws an hour-long tantrum because you gave him a red cup rather than a blue one, maybe there's a way to start smaller. Have him take one drink out of the red cup and then have the blue one, for example. As I wrote in our mashed potato fiasco, we're not here to antagonize our kids, just to gently prod them so they are a little less trapped by inflexibility.

Thankfully, from an early age Ethan was not an excessive tantrum-mer, but he of course was prone to routine and still is. It's been pretty easy to identify when a "rut" is forming because if it's removed, there's trouble. For a while now Ethan has complained that he doesn't like dad making him breakfast, and in fact will try to skip breakfast if I'm not there. Why? Because I tend to give him his breakfast in the same way (down to the folded napkin and the vitamin on the plate). The shake-up really bugs him. Over time we have insisted he eats the breakfasts dad serves him, even if he forget the napkin or Ethan has to pour his own drink. You can see how it's like nails on a chalkboard for him. But slowly, he's learned to force himself to do it.

Our biggest struggle with Ethan right now is Wii time. Especially on Fridays. Ethan wants his Wii after school. He wants to play it uninterrupted, in bliss, without thoughts of homework or school. But sometimes Fridays go differently. Sometimes we might actually want to go out to eat as a family. If I give Ethan no warning about this, all hell breaks lose. A few weeks ago we dealt with the mother of all tantrums. I felt pretty frustrated, because after all, we were offering to go out to eat, not bring him to get a shot. But that wasn't the point. The order of things had been disrupted. The one thing he'd been so looking forward to had been taken away.

I mean this as no disrespect to autistic people, but this kind of "tunnel vision" is very similar to what happens to a toddler who doesn't get what she wants (I can think of one who is taking sleeping in this house at this very moment). For a toddler, life is very much: I want this. I want it now. I can't wait. I can't accept something else. What happens if we immediately cave to their demands? We all know.

If we head out to do something and our plans fall through, it's hard on all the kids. I remember a time specifically recently when I talked up going to the bakery in town with Chloe, only to arrive and find it closed and locked that day. I scrambled to think of something else we could do. Sometimes our own reaction is important -- our kids are watching us. How much of a big deal do WE make about these things? We ended up walking around the town for a little while. After a few tears, Chloe cheered up as we found a different activity and kept moving.

The same applies to us grown-ups. What happens if I constantly insist on doing only what I like to do, on not relenting and going to the restaurant Dan wants to visit because it's not at the top of my list? What happens if I don't shake myself out of my "mood" when my schedule or plans get changed? I grow more entrenched in my ways.

For some of us, being flexible, and being resilient, takes more practice and concerted effort. But the is hope. We might never be as spontaneous and happy-go-lucky as some people. That's okay. We can just become a little less rigid and a little more able to cope with change.

The benefits are obvious. That is, of course, why these are so important for all of us and for people on the spectrum in particular. Because life won't always go our way. On any given day, there are myriad opportunities for our routines to get disrupted and to do things we don't really want to do. HOW we respond is all we can control. I can't tell you how many times I've had to learn this lesson myself.

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