Ah, summer! A time for fun! A time for relaxing! A time for chaos!
When you are autistic, the unorganized, seemingly endless days of summer can appear as a nightmare! Sure, the first few days of sleeping in are great. Then the trips to the beach, the park, the theme parks all seem nice on the outside, but something deep inside starts to go a little haywire. By the two-week mark, circuits are as fried as all the yummy summer food you’ve been eating!
Or at least that’s how life appears to be for my son.
Connor fights school. He whines about the appointments. He complains about having to do all the non-recreational stuff he has to do for his ASD diagnosis. “No school today!” is a common refrain at our house in the mornings. He usually follows it up with “maybe tomorrow”, as if he’ll be more prepared by then to buckle down.
What he may not consciously realize is that every time we have a prolonged break from school (and thus a break from routine), his world starts to spin out of control.
There are too many options, too many fun things to choose from that he eventually suffers from choice paralysis. When his days are structured and ordered, we have a clear, limited number of choices because our “free choice” time is limited.
To a child this may sound like torture! Only having an hour or two of free time each day! During the summer!!! This woman is a fascist! But for the child with autism, the structured day is the mental equivalent of eating your vegetables. You may not always like them, and I can dress them up to taste better, but they will in the long run make you healthier and stronger.
Since school let out two weeks ago, I’ve watched my son’s behavior slowly devolve from happy, compliant and self-contained to needy, angry, and defiant! Tantrums went from 1 or 2 every other day to 2 to 3 every day. Time outs tripled. Bad behavior, we had happily curtailed, reemerged. Anger was always near the surface. Hitting, kicking, throwing things, all behaviors we had worked on diligently for the past year and had successfully disappeared from his repertoire began to take shape again. Perhaps worst of all, his language began to disappear. Words were replaced by screams and grunts.
The de-evolution culminated on Saturday when we were driving home from my sister’s house. Connor was in the back pretending to be The Amazing Mumford. When I chimed in with his magic words “A la peanut butter sandwiches” something in Connor snapped. He took his seatbelt off and lunged at me. Thankfully we were close to home but for those few minutes in the car there was a violent struggle as I tried to fend of the little demon that had replaced my child and drive at the same time.
That night I cried, Connor cried. I drank wine while Connor drank juice and was put to bed by my husband.
The next day my precious child had no recollection of the event, but I still felt scarred by it. I avoided him all day, leaving the parenting to my husband. I busied myself with groceries, cooking, gardening. That night we left Connor with my parents so I could have time out of the house and away from my child.
By the time I returned I felt better, more centered and ready to face the daily struggles of parenting an autistic child. When I picked up my son, he was so happy to see me, so happy to hug me and kiss me; I wondered at the seemingly dramatic change in him.
But when summer school began Monday morning, and we began our routine, my happy child reemerged. Sure, he didn’t want to go to school that morning, but by the time I picked him up, he was happy, compliant, and eager to get on with his schedule.
While all children benefit from consistency, children with autism seem to need it to function. And though Connor enjoyed his first few days of freedom, I have a feeling, he’s secretly happy to be back in school
If you’re interested, here is some more information on why consistent schedules are important for both typical developing children and for ASD children: