At first blush, this story has nothing to do with autism – except that it does. A friend and I try to take regular walks in Central Park to spend some quality time together and to get blood flowing. We always walk the same path, with me on the left and her to my right. We take the upper loop walking counterclockwise (if you are facing north) from the East Side heading north, around to the West Side, and back across to the East. One day, for some reason I can no longer recall, we decided to walk the other way. Sounds easy enough, right?
The first 20 minutes or so went fine. We were lost in conversation when one of us stopped suddenly and said “Wait – are we on the right path?” Had we veered onto an alternate artery? We weren’t sure if we had unintentionally strayed off of the path or whether it simply looked different because we were walking in the opposite direction. During the course of the walk, we stopped several more times, at first alarmed and then amused at the thought that we might be on the “wrong” path. The scenery all looked so different, yet we knew that there was only one main paved path with bike and pedestrian lanes so this had to be the same path we had always walked. We were “shook.”
My friend and I are both parents to individuals with autism. Our “children” love routines and deviations from those routines can sometimes cause anything from a few rough moments to an entirely turbulent day. That day in the park opened my eyes to several truths. First, the discomfort we experienced in the simple change to our routine was REAL. Despite the fact that we were on the exact same path, just walking in the other direction, that we knew we were in no danger of any kind and that we had chosen this deviation, we experienced some palpable confusion and uneasiness. Though we know that change in routine can be difficult for our loved ones with autism, it can be perplexing for us to relate to the magnitude of their reactions. The disorientation we felt, while just a minor example of what our children endure, was illuminating.
The second reality that our change in pattern exposed, was just how much our children with autism drive us toward routine and sameness. We spend so much energy trying to enforce and execute routines to avoid meltdowns and keep our children comfortable. As a consequence, we sometimes restrict out own choices and opportunities beyond what is necessary or even beneficial for ourselves or our children. Creating the space for small changes to routine, in increments our children can tolerate, can help build their flexibility and expose them (and us) to a new richness of experience. In order to enable our children to cope with these changes, it helps to prepare them for the change if possible and to introduce only one minor change at a time. Engineering some tiny changes in this way helps our children learn to endure changes without meltdowns, including those that inevitably occur that are outside of our control.
So if you find that you are always doing things the same way and possibly creating and sticking to routines beyond what is optimal, mix it up. Challenge yourself to make one small change in one routine. See if one tiny change opens your eyes to new ideas of ways to help your child expand their flexibility and tolerance for new experiences.