Dealing with change

Change is something which an autistic child finds very difficult to deal with. They prefer a safe, familiar routine which has a clear structure and a purpose. They use this as a coping mechanism and a defence against what they see as a puzzling and frightening world.

In fact, change is something which some people deal with better than others. This applies to people without a disability as well who often thrive in an environment where they perform the same routine, day in day out.

But this can be easily disrupted even by the smallest of changes. For example, someone who enjoys a particular brand of a product such as a breakfast cereal can become upset when this is discontinued.

Many of us learn to cope with change and see it as part of life. But an autistic child sees it very differently and as a result becomes stressed and/or anxious. He or she views it as a threat, as a challenge to their safe, comfortable world and reacts in a variety of ways.

Change is a scary prospective for many children without a disability which is magnified for autistic children.

Examples of change

There are various events or situations which change an aspect of a daily routine. For example, a change to a lesson at school due to a teacher being absent or an educational field trip to another area in the country.

Other examples include starting school, going on holiday, visiting relatives, going to the dentist, moving house or joining a club.

Sometimes it is the small changes which have a greater effect than a major event such as moving house. Why is that the case? This may be because they are used to a fixed routine and any deviation from that is likely to cause anxiety.

Plus many autistic children are unable to comprehend the effect of a major change such as moving house. They may not realise what this entails and so do not react in the same way as with a small change in their life.

Another common feature of autism is the inability to see the bigger picture. Many autistic children are good at detail and can focus upon a particular area but are less good at seeing how this fits into the overall scheme of things.

Difficulties of change to an autistic child

The main issue is that of moving away from a normal routine. Routines and/or structure are how autistic children navigate the world around them which is also safe and reassuring.

But even the slightest change to this is upsetting and liable to cause a strong reaction.

Change is a part of life and something we have to embrace or at least adapt to. It often involves some forward planning or scheduling a day and time for that change. It also means preparing for what will happen before, during and after that change.

These are difficult processes for the autistic child. He or she is often unable to handle the concept of time and is unable to understand why people do a particular action at a set time in a day. Plus they are often poor at understanding the stages of a task or action.

For example: a trip to the shops is a sequence of mini actions which involve making a shopping list, planning how to get to the shops, e.g. driving, bus etc, choosing an item from the correct aisle (repeat this) and then purchasing the items.

Someone without a disability is able to break a task down into these actions and understand how they fit together. They can take a holistic approach in that they are able to see the entire picture and how it works.

But an autistic child is often unable to sequence a set of actions, process the necessary information or understand how these mini actions work in conjunction with each other. In effect, they are unable to see the big picture.

Coping with change for the autistic child

There are several ways you as a parent can help your child to cope with change. These include using picture cards which contain a series of images showing the steps of a task, for example, a trip to the shops.

It is better to show the various stages of the process rather than just a single image of the change. As an example: if your child has to visit the dentist then show them what will happen beforehand, during the visit and afterwards instead of an image of a dentist’s chair.

Explain what the change is and how often it is likely to happen. You may have to explain this several times. Use a relaxation technique if necessary. Encourage your child to remain calm and to understand that this is a positive aspect in their life. If it is a change which may be unpleasant then it is still important to explain this to your child but emphasise that it is necessary and will be over quickly. So to return to the example of the visit to the dentist: explain why they have to undergo this and that it may be a little frightening but it is for their own good and is a short term event. Praise your child and reward them after they have been.

The better prepared and informed your child is the less anxious they may be about any changes in their life.

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