Changes, Why WOULN'T this be hard??

Do our students need to be more flexible? Or do we?

Very often when we discuss challenges faced by individuals with Autism, we note rigidity and the need to adhere to a strict schedule or routine. Is this the truth? Yes, this is an ENORMOUS challenge for so many children and adults on the Autism Spectrum. But really... how many typically developing people do you know who react favorably when they have a sudden disruption to their plans?

Perfect example:
Yesterday morning I arrive to work slightly later than anticipated (Hint: setting event... I'm already stressed), as I walk up the steps to the high school I scroll through my email and BOOM. Our principal has emailed the entire high school announcing a training for the afternoon. Hold on...I didn't know about this training... I thought we had parent conferences again today!? Wait, did I get the dates wrong and schedule parent appointments for the wrong day??  This parent had a very specific schedule and we struggled to fit her in, I can't believe I did this!

Ok, so here we have it. Clearly not a calm, rational, flexible response to a sudden change to my perceived schedule for the day. Opposite really - full on panic, frantic, disorganized thoughts about everything I had to do to fix this. I mean no, I didn't throw a chair, hit my head on the front door, or even run screaming into my principal's office, but I was not responding well to this disruption, even though it was the way most people I know would... and the way many of my student's would. (In the event that you are interested, everything worked out, the email was not intended for the entire high school faculty, phew!)
So we have established that accepting changes to our schedules, routines, and plans are generally not preferred for most people. Still the question remains, are we being too rigid and holding our students with Autism to a higher standard than we hold ourselves?

Here are two things to consider:
  1. Above I mentioned some of the behaviors I did not display, property disruption... aggression... self injury ... throwing a tantrum in the main office... that's where the problem really lies. Yes, many of our students with Autism may be reacting in a very typical manner to a major change by becoming upset or stressed, but what happens next, engaging in maladaptive behaviors as a response to these changes or emotions, that is why it is a "big deal" that our students are rigid and that is where our efforts need to be focused. Generally people learn different strategies to manage their emotions, stress level, and are able to regulate their emotional responding as a result. However, someone who lacks the communication skills I had when I asked my principal for clarification about the training email, or who is unable to develop or research coping strategies and put them into practice in times of distress really won't fare as well. These are the kinds of skills we need to assess and teach early on. Don't wait for a problem to arise before teaching students to request help or clarification, to express their frustration or other emotions appropriately, or relaxation strategies for times of need! Some of our learners may need support in identifying when to use these new skills (though ideally you are teaching them within the correct context) so be prepared to give that support through visual cues and reminders!
  2. The change I described above, was kind of a big deal for me. It would have entailed quite a bit of work for me including contacting parents, rescheduling meetings, etc. not to mention that phone calls at 6:30 am to reschedule a meeting for later that day would probably not be well received and let's be honest, no one likes getting yelled at... If I had described an example where someone else took my unofficial, self-assigned parking spot, or where someone switched all of my pens from black to blue (Note: I have a very serious distaste for blue pens so I would NOT be happy about this), then a panicky reaction would be much less typical or appropriate. Or if I said my principal emailed us in the morning and said there was a special surprise breakfast for staff or we did not have to arrive until 12pm, most of us would be pretty excited, there would be no panic, no frantic thoughts. For our students, starting work at 8:07 instead of 8:00 or having a different breakfast...these minor changes or even in some cases favorable changes, they are met with the same degree of rigidity, the same level of agitation, and often the same display of maladaptive behaviors.
As you can probably tell this is a topic I could seriously write a book about... There are so many types of challenges, warning signs, approaches to interventions, etc. and it really can't all fit into one blog post!

Sample page from my upcoming curriculum!

However, the key points are:
  1. GET SOME DATA!!! I'm working on creating an assessment tool for Accepting Changes, Delays, etc. It's still a work in progress but look for it in my TpT store soon! But seriously, write down what the change was, other possible setting events or environmental factors, the method of communicating the change, how much warning was given, and exactly what the student's response was (not to mention what your response was afterward). This will all be very useful to you in determining your next steps.
  2. Remember that like any other time you are assessing or treating an individual with Autism, any approach you take should be one geared towards that specific learner's needs and with their safety, and well-being in mind!
  3. Let's not call it sabotage... but really you should plan for changes and disruptions to your routine! By incorporating these changes naturally, preparing your learners for truly unplanned disruptions, and providing yourself with opportunities for observation and evaluation, you will be on your way to helping students become more flexible, as well as finding out sooner (and within a controlled, safe setting) rather than later if deviating from the routine is problematic for your learner.
  4. (Seriously do this one!) Before you move forward with any type of intervention or even more systematic assessment, just think: Would I or another person without a disability respond that way? How would it be the same/different? What is it about this learner's response that needs to be addressed? And finally: Who is being too rigid, Is it the student.. or is it me?

Have a wonderful weekend everyone, and I hope there are no traffic jams, unexpected storms, or other undesirable changes to your plans!

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