Often it is seen that parents of children with Autism struggle with rigid stereotypic behaviours in their children, sometimes so much that they land up being depressed or live in a perpetual state of anxiety. Coupled with the frustration of having to live up with their children’s unreasonable demands, their worry of what might happen to the child’s future makes them troubled and anxious all the time. The stress gets the better of the parents and begins to reflect in all other areas of their lives such as the relationship to their spouse, interpersonal relations with their colleagues at work and so on. In a nutshell, life begins to look like a living breathing hell, just because the child’s behaviours are rigid and unmanageable.
So is there a solution to it really? Thankfully, the answer is “YES”.
Stereotypic behaviours and rigidity to routine can be broken. It just has to be dealt with methodically and not emotionally. When a child says, “I only want to eat bread” or “I will only travel by this route” or “I will only wear this shirt and none else”, that is the time to not give in. You must not bargain with the child on any account. Let the child know you call the shots in certain cases. Simply say, and very clamly, “No, today we will eat this…” and gently forward the plate towards the child, or say “ First finish a little bit of this, then you get a bit of that”. Initially, it is going to be tough as the kid will shout, probably cry out loud, make it rather uncomfortable for you, but follow through on whatever you have declared even if it requires giving a physical prompt to the child along with loads of encouragement. At no point in time should you lose your cool as that would mean straight on defeat for you. The more you are cool and smiling and firm on your stand, the lesser time it will take for your kid to figure out, “mummy will not give up, let me just listen to what she has to say and get that which I want”.
Strategy No. 2, to break stereotypic and monotonous routines, contrive situations. For example, you are aware that a particular shop is closed on Tuesdays, tell the child, “we are going to that particular shop to get (say) chips”. But please make sure that the child does not already know that he is going to a shop that is closed, otherwise the purpose of the activity will be defeated. Upon reaching the shop, say, “the shop is closed, so no problem, we can get the chips tomorrow”. Initially it will be super hard as kid will throw a tantrum , cry shout do anything to make you uncomfortable because not getting the chips is out of his routine as you said he would get it, and that is the emotion we need to tackle at this moment. Take him back home irrespective of his yelling, shouting etc and with a smile and calmness in your attitude simply repeat, “its ok, we will come back tomorrow”. Under no circumstance should you give in and look for another shop to get chips. Remember, if you do that, you are TRAINING the child to throw a tantrum and STAY RIGID.
Make sure that the next day, as promised, you take the kid to the same shop and get him the chips. This will leave an imprint on the child’s brain that mum is genuine and it is good to listen to her. He/she will be intrinsically motivated to listen to you next time because you did not cheat the child saying, “I will get you chips tomorrow” and never went back. Please note that we think kids have forgotten but they remember and every act of not standing true to our word takes them a step away from trusting us and a step closer to being rigid and throwing a tantrum.
Rigidity to routine is broken in steps. In the initial years, we contrive such like situations but as they grow up, we contrive situations where we tell them they will get something and then they do not get it at all because of an unforeseen exigency, and our victory is in the fact that they begin to understand that sometimes, even if they want they may not get what they are looking forward to and that is ok because such is life. No one can guarantee that they will get everything they want and kids need to learn to be comfortable with that fact. Only then can we be rest assured that we have gotten them ready to face life independently without having to go through phases of hopelessness and depression in future.
For example, I once remember, after having settled almost all the tantrums that are characteristic of a young age, I moved on with these higher order thinking skills with my son and committed to take him for the movie “Ice Age” in a multiplex (while being fully aware that the movie had already gone off air). So when we reached the multiplex and I asked the attendant to give us three tickets for Ice Age, (which I knew he would say were not available,)When he said the same, I saw my 13 year old’s face frown with anger. He had by then of course learnt not to put up a show in public but anyone could see he wasn’t particularly impressed with the fact that movie was not available. That is when the true purpose of contriving this situation took over, and I said, “well, now we know we cannot watch Ice Age, its not possible, what are our options to be happy?” and I gave a couple of options which included visit to a gaming arcade, any other movie show, visit to his favourite eat joint and lastly the option of staying angry, bitter and upset and going home.
No prizes for guessing he did not pick up the last option. He settled for visit to his favourite eat joint, which anyways as a visit I had scheduled since it was a weekend and I had planned to take kids out, so it wasn’t like I was going out of the way to please him and in the whole process, I landed up teaching him a very vital skill of adjusting with a given circumstance at hand in a peaceful manner.
Two weeks later, on a yet another weekend, I got a call from a friend who said, tickets not available, show houseful and I shouted the same out to my son since he was in his room doing his thing and he shouted back, “no problem, we’ll find something else amusing enough to do”
… And I felt the learning was now complete, at least in one area of life.