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Summertime Schedule

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:

Autistic Children Need a Consistent Schedule

Norrin’s Story of Schedules

The Importance of Schedules

Ready, Set, Routine!

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Schedule smedule

We all have a routine.  We get up, we eat breakfast, we get dressed, we leave the house.  Or maybe in your family breakfast is the last thing you do before heading out for the day.  Or maybe you don’t eat breakfast at all!!  Whatever your routine, you wake up expecting the day to go a certain way.

Connor’s autism manifests itself most often in his own expectations.  It’s clear that Connor has a very precise view of how the day is going to go.  He knows what he wants and when he wants it.  Connor is determined and “passionate” about getting his expectations of the world to line up with what is actually happening.

For example:

A few weeks ago, we woke up early one morning to prepare for school.  Or at least I thought we were preparing for school.  Connor went to the choice board and asked for goldfish.  Fine.  Goldfish crackers for breakfast can’t really be any better or worse than fruit loops.  I handed him his bowl of goldfish and his juice, EXPECTING him to sit in his seat at the table and have his “breakfast”.  Connor had different expectations.  He looked up at me and asked “Lion of Sodor?”  Which sounded a little like “wion of sodo?”  But I knew what he meant.  Connor was referring to a Thomas the Train video that he particularly likes.    I felt somewhat shocked.  What?  Lion of Sodor at 7:45 on a Wednesday morning?  Connor clearly expected to take his crackers and juice into the family room and watch his favorite Thomas movie.

And when I said no, we had to go to school, it was as if I had crushed his tiny dreams!  He immediately fell apart!  Crying!  Screaming!  Gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair!  If he’d beaten his chest and torn his shirt, it would have been a complete Greek tragedy.  Why, oh why was I the worst mommy in the world?  Why wouldn’t I let him skip school for Thomas movies?  Why did he have to sit at a table and eat?  What was wrong with me?!?  Obviously this was all implied and not actually stated, but I got the message loud and clear.

All because his expectations of the morning didn’t match up with reality.

If this had been a year ago the tantrum would have continued for an hour, at least.  But now that he is a mature 3-year-old, with nearly a year of ABA training under his belt, the tantrum ceased after a mere five minutes.  Oh happy day!

Yet, as an adult, I know people (as in other adults) who do not adapt as quickly when their expectations or routine is suddenly thrown off.  And to be quite honest, I’ve been known to pout if someone messes with my routine.

Take this morning, for example .  I typically take the dogs for a walk directly after breakfast.  The exercise and fresh air give me a chance to clear my head for the day.  They also provide me with a meditative space to think of my blog topic for the day, which I write immediately after we get home.  Today I was going to write all about my new adventures in menu planning (exciting right?), but I was completely thrown off by an incident on my walk.

My dogs like to stop frequently to sniff the vegetation and Dodger, in particular, likes to mark his way along the path.  This morning, tragedy struck.  At the precise moment Penny bent down to sniff a plant, Dodger raised his leg to mark the same exact plant. The result: Penny got a face full of pee.

All thoughts of anything other than that my one dog had just peed on the face of my other dog flew from my head!  “These two were getting a bath the second we get home” was all I could think.

No blog topic.  No sitting down to write with ideas fresh in my head.  No leisurely shower alone.

Instead my thoughts were almost like a mantra “pee on head. pee on head.  pee on head.”  My shower is completely filthy, since I wash my dogs inside as they’re both terrified of water and Dodger requires a special allergy shampoo.  This means that every time they get out of a shower, my bed room is covered in flying dog water as they shake themselves dry.  This means my room, my bed, my clothes, smell like wet dog for the next 12 hours.

And I still needed to write my blog!

POUT!!!

Ok, maybe I’m not really pouting, but the dogs seriously threw me off my schedule and it took me at least a few minutes to collect myself and get back on track.   So…congratulations Connor, you’ve reached the same level of acceptance as your mother.  Well done.