Change can be confusing and sometimes even frightening for some children on the spectrum. I know with my son, he can get extremely focused on his current activity. That is a blessing and a curse. He does really well in therapy most days with being attentive to the current task, transitioning to a new one, however, can be tricky. It all depends on how much he enjoys the current task versus how much interest the new task holds. Usually, he is given a choice between two different new activities. This is to develop his pointing communication skill and it also gives him something all toddlers crave…a sense of control.
One of the things I learned early on was the importance of transitioning in our daily routine. This can be as simple as singing a song while changing activities, letting them take a toy or other object of interest with him or a verbal cue like 1….2….3….GO!!! Our Amazing Spidermonkey doesn’t always require transitioning, but certain activity changes like getting out of the bathtub nearly always have one to ensure a meltdown free transition. With the counting method, 1 means it’s time to let Mommy get you. With 2, his focus has shifted from his previous activity to me and he’s usually giggling. Three is when I begin to lift him up and GO! is bringing him up and over the side of the tub. It almost makes it like a new game. I use a happy, excited voice like we’re setting off for another adventure…in all fairness, we usually are with him.
When leaving a room or the house, taking an item with him usually makes the change a happy one. This isn’t always a toy. It might be his cup of juice if we are leaving the house. It might be his bottle of shampoo if he is getting out of the tub. Just bringing something from the old task to the new seems to soothe the anxiety of the change. His transitional item of choice at night is his soft blanket. If he’s tired and ready for bed, just putting it on him makes him lay down in his bed, curl up in it and get ready for sleep. To figure out what might work for your child, first take note of what triggers his transition-based meltdowns. If it is the loss of an item they aren’t supposed to have, try trading for one of their favorite appropriate items. Again, think outside the box. This doesn’t have to be a toy. If your child has grabbed the spray cleaner while you were cleaning, give him his own spray bottle of water. Replacing with a similar yet safe item can re-engage the curiosity that was generated by the first item.
Just noticing patterns in your child’s day and prepping ahead of time can make for fewer meltdowns and a happier mom to boot. Preempting an issue is always best, but not always possible. One thing I know is that Christian is going to be an absolute grizzly bear if any one of three things occur: hunger, thirst or sleepiness. This is true for most toddlers, but for a child with Autism, they can meltdown to the point of being completely inconsolable. With therapy, appointments and life in general, we get busy. Meals get stretched too far, he runs out of milk on an outing…it happens. We are human. If you are faced with one of these need-based meltdowns, first fill the need. Understand though that sometimes they will reject the very thing they truly want. If this happens, try holding them close and doing slow, gentle compressing squeezes on their arms and legs. Some children with ASD get a calming benefit from this type of sensory input. With Christian, sometimes that works and sometimes it makes it worse. If talking gently, holding them and presenting the needed item does not work, I walk away and leave him in a safe place with the needed item. At that point, he is on overload and needs to be allowed to have some time with no new input to cool down. Think of it like a computer that is frozen. Pressing a button repeatedly is only going to keep it frozen that much longer. You have to stop, back off, and give them time to catch up. I love my son, walking away while he is crying breaks my heart, but you have to do what is best to help them calm down. Once he is no longer overloaded, he usually will calm down and approach the needed item on his own terms.
There is another front to be addressed in this as well though. Language barriers can also be extremely instrumental in causing dreaded meltdowns. In the beginning, I rationalized that Christian didn’t need to speak early on, because all of his needs were met. I thought that he mentally just didn’t see the need to talk because he had what he needed, I was half right. Now, I try to get him to communicate his needs to me. Instead of immediately refilling his cup when it’s empty, I ask him to sign or say “more”. We’ve also begun to use laminated photos of everyday things he might need or want. We have images of his cup, cheerios, goldfish snacks, his fruit snacks, Dora, outside, sidewalk chalk, bubbles and (of course) Yo Gabba Gabba!. I attached magnets to the back and placed them on the refrigerator. Tonight I took him to the fridge and pointed out all of the magnets and stated what each was represented. Then he pointed at the picture of his sippy cup and said, “thirsty”. This was HUGE!!! We’ve really struggled with purposeful speech. These last two weeks, he has really started to blossom. A meaningful word here and there, pointing to the star on the Macy’s commercial and saying “star”. Every new word is a tiny little victory in this house…and we celebrate them as if they are each little early Christmas presents. Celebrate the small things with great joy. It is contagious. Your little one will feel your excitement and want to do even more…trust me.