Everyone hates change. It is not fun for anyone. It seems a pretty constant thing though that this is especially true for Autistic people. It’s a factor when routine is of particular importance. When knowing what is happening and plans and lists are always in action – even when they may not be written down in a formal or even rough fashion. The plan, if that’s what the correct term is is always in play, and if it is not adhered to there can be hell to pay.
It is, I believe about more than just a wanting to follow one’s own agenda, one’s own idea of how things should proceed, indeed it is more than just the belief that the Autistic person’s own routine should be adhered to. I believe it is far more about anxiety. When change comes it is anxiety that comes into play more than aggression and anger. Anxiety is what is driving responses about change. Whether it is a minor change or a major change, this I believe is the big factor.
For a far more fuller discussion about that part of this issue I highly recommend the reading of the title From Anxiety to Meltdown by Deborah Lypsky. I read this book a couple of years ago and it resonated with me very strongly. This was at the time when I was in that period of discovery of my self being Autistic. Lypsky makes good use of examples of how anxiety response is the real factor involved in leading to meltdown, and how it is often predicated because of a change. Possibly a major change, but just as likely a minor change.
I know on a personal front that I am one of the first to struggle with change. It can be as simple as a change in the route taken on a trip from home to the shopping centre, the bus or train not running to the timetable or even a sudden decision make an unscheduled stop on the way home. It can of course be much more complex and big like for a high school student negotiating subject choices, college preferences etc. It can be the yearly change of classrooms for younger school children. The change of an office for a worker or, indeed, a newly imposed procedure for doing something.
Imagine being an autistic child in a Primary (elementary) school classroom, already a sensory overloaded experience with the noise of 20-30 children, the sounds of texta’s, pencils, air-conditioner, chattering voices, groups working together chatting. Sensory overloaded with masses of colours in displays, children work hanging in all manner of displays that block the view of the whole classroom, displays, which, also flap in the breeze. The sensory assault of the different smells of flowing in to the classroom in food, deodorants, perfumes. This environment is a massive effort for the autistic person to negotiate at the best of times. Imagine now the child who makes sense of this and copes with this by relying on the routine, relying on the fact that at certain times on certain days certain things occur. For example, on Tues at 2pm P.E class occurs. Is it any wonder that when suddenly P.E. class is not occurring at that time on that day that it provokes an anxiety response from the children, this happens for all the children but tends to be pronounced for the Autistic child.
The anxiety response is often manifested in this environment with anger, aggression, unwelcome behaviour. When you consider the above is it any wonder that this response occurs. Is it any wonder that this can result in a meltdown situation. I would contend that it is no surprise at all, in fact, the surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.
What’s the answer. Well I guess there isn’t really an easy answer is there. But perhaps the very first step is an acknowledgement that the strategies like routines, stimming, resistance of eye contact and sitting still are actually key elements in the coping mechanisms of the Autistic person in managing their anxiety levels and avoiding proceeding to meltdown.
Educators need to realise that quiet hands are not appropriate things to be asking of Autistic children. That demanding this and other so called full body listening practices are in fact adding to the likelihood that the Autistic student in front of them is likely to be overloaded with anxiety and therefore have a very difficult time in even being in the classroom. Let alone engaging in effective learning.
It really is a truism that all behaviour is communication. It is about time that communication is taken note of for the benefit of all, not just the autistic students but all. Less time devoted trying to have the Autistic student to conform to so called norms and expectations means more time devoted to quality teaching of the whole class of students.
Change is difficult for everyone, and especially difficult for Autistics. It’s not so much about the change but the anxiety that it produces. It is at times unavoidable. Perhaps a way forward is to, whenever possible, flag the change as soon as possible giving as much notice as possible, making the change as minimal as possible and where possible work to avoid it. Lofty ideals I agree, but we must do our best for our kids. Surely.