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Help Your Child Build Flexibility

5 Ways to guide your child with autism through unexpected change

As an autistic mom with an autistic child, I can tell you that things get pretty rigid in my house. If we can’t find my five-year-old’s brush for his hair one night, we are nearing meltdown territory. If my work-at-home space is disturbed by too many people moving too many things around without my knowledge, I cannot concentrate.

Rigidity is good for some things. Certain rules should definitely be rigid, like no hitting. Some values are set in stone, such as respect for one another. But all things in life cannot be static. Most of life requires flexibility, adaptability, and not only a willingness to change, but also the skill to make those changes work for the best.

As the parent of someone who has autism, it can be daunting to think about how my child is going to interact with a world that changes all the time, as he grows more independent. What we as parents have to keep in mind, though, is that our autistic children are already much more adaptable than we realize.

By the time I, or my son, get out of bed in the morning, for instance, we have already consciously adapted to at least five unwelcome changes: 1) Shifting from asleep to awake; 2) The painful change from darkness to light; 3) Accepting that it is time to get out of bed, as much as we’d rather not; 4) Shifting from a horizontal orientation to vertical; and 5) The full-body temperature change of throwing off the covers. It’s like stepping into a torture chamber every morning.

Take those few moments of waking up and multiply that by the hundreds of interactions and transitions throughout any given day, and now you are beginning to get a sense of how adaptable I, and my son, have to be.

Before you worry about helping your child become more flexible, understand that they are probably already more flexible than you are. You may not realize it, because you may not experience the world the same way they do. That means you can give yourself grace—and give your child grace—and know that they are trying as hard as they can, even when it may seem to you like they’re not trying at all.

With that in mind, here are some of the things that have helped me and my son the most in learning to increase our flexibility:

Talk It Through (Even if They Don’t Talk Back)

This may seem like a simple start, but it is essential. Even if your child with autism is nonverbal, that doesn’t mean they don’t understand you when you speak.

Tell your child what is happening. Tell them what is changing and why. Tell them anything you can about the change, even if you think they won’t understand. Whether they participate in the talk or not, the fact that you are taking a moment to explain it to them will go a long way.

For example, I picked up my son from school one day. Our normal routine was that we would walk home together, stopping at the corner deli for a snack. But on this day, I needed to pick him up in the car and take him to the grocery store with me. That’s a big change. So, when I met him at school, I got down to his level and talked him through what was about to happen, knowing that his initial reaction was going to be negative. I told him we had to have a change for getting home that day, and I watched him immediately begin to stim (self-stimulate) by rubbing the side-tag on his shirt, like he always does when trying to self-regulate. He was clearly nervous about the change, starting to stomp and say “no,” until I kept us slowly moving through the next few steps.

Keep a Consistent Framework

Knowing how many things my child experiences that I don’t even notice (he can tell when a puzzle piece is stuck under his rug), means that when a specific need for adjustment arises, I try to keep as much of everything else the same as possible for him.

Of course, he is still young, so I still control many of the factors that surround his life. One day he will need to learn how to manage lots of changes at once on his own. But for now, I think of it like I’m running a practice arena for him, and I try to balance things out so that he can first learn to deal with one change at a time.

Using the school pickup example, I tried to keep the other major elements of our routine in place. Because we would normally have some time to ourselves talking as we walked, I made sure to spend several one-on-one minutes before we left the school, just talking to him about his day. Because we would normally get a snack from the deli, I made sure to have one of his favorite snacks in my bag that he could eat in the car.

These may seem like small details, but it’s these little things that help sustain forward momentum through a larger change.

Offer Reasonable Rewards

Dealing with a big (or sometimes even a small) change takes a lot of energy.

It takes more energy for me or my son to get through a typical day than it does for people who don’t experience the world the way we do. The world hurts. It’s also amazing and beautiful—if it was just all hurt all the time, I would never get out of bed. I need the amazing stuff to help me keep going, to give me something positive to look forward to.

For your child who is struggling with a change, you can help them learn to reward themselves for getting through it as smoothly as possible. A reward need not be extravagant. These can be small rewards like five extra minutes of play time before bed.

In the case of the after-school grocery errand, I might have in my back pocket the option of offering him a fun snack from the store, instead of the one I brought. Something like: “How about this: Because we have to do this special thing today, how about you can pick out your own special snack when we get to the store?” Then, of course, set whatever parameters you need to in advance to make sure the special snack is one you will approve.

Give Them a Reason – the Real One, if You Can

Many people with autism operate from a base of logic. Of course, the world is far from logical. Even so, there’s often a logical reason why a change must occur; even if that reason is simply that “change happens” and we have to learn how to deal with it when it does.

A child with autism might appreciate having a clear reason for the change. If I don’t know why someone is telling me to do something, sometimes I don’t even hear them telling me to do it. The reason is what compels me to spend my precious energy on one thing rather than another. Give me the real reason, and it will be worth my energy.

So, for our grocery run, I explained to my son why it was important that we go to the store now. I told him we were out of milk and that I’d been working all day, so this was the only time that we could go to the store before tomorrow, when we would need the milk for breakfast. I made sure to throw in other logical reasons like the fact that we also needed steak for dinner tonight, lest he suggest that we still just walk home and pick up milk from the deli instead.

Be an Explicit Role Model

Your kids are watching what you do. All the time!

Many autistic children, in fact, make an explicit study of their peers and caregivers, trying to learn and imitate what is considered desirable behavior.

If your child sees you getting bent out of shape about a change, it may fan the flame of rigidity. If, however, they see you employ some of the same techniques you are trying to teach them, it helps drive the behavior home. You can even be overt about it—tell your child how you are feeling and what you are going to do to help get yourself through the change. You can say things like, “Oh no, that’s not what I expected. All right, let me stay calm and think about this.” Or: “Well, I really had to be flexible there and I think I did a good job. I’m going to have a nice cup of tea to help me feel better.”

Calling out when you demonstrate being flexible helps your child see concrete examples. Be sure to give them credit when you notice them following suit.

Sarah Nannery is Director of Development for Autism Initiatives at Drexel University. She holds a master’s degree in conflict transformation, and was recently diagnosed with autism.

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