Last year the kids and I discovered geocaching, a kind of treasure hunt to find hidden containers using only GPS coordinates. I was excited because it combines a bunch of things that my oldest son Max really enjoys – maps, numbers, puzzles – so I was pretty sure that it would be something that he’d have fun doing.
But I also knew that the other big plus for me – getting out of the house – was going to be a huge minus for him. Leaving the safety of his comfort zone and routines to head out into the big unknown can be really scary, and most days he’d love nothing more than to stay inside in front of a screen from sunrise to sunset.
So every time I consider a new activity for him there’s this weighing up process that happens. Do the benefits warrant the discomfort he feels, even if it’s only temporary? How do I encourage him to be exposed to new things, yet still make him feel safe and secure? How do I know when to expand his experiences and when to let him stick to familiar routines? Is it okay to nudge him? And most importantly, when does nudging become pushing?
I think about that last one a lot, because the line between encouraging him to keep trying something he might eventually love and pushing him to do something that he hates can be blurry. Change is so uncomfortable for him that it’s often hard to separate his reaction to the new thing from his reaction to the change. So even though I know that he often discovers new favourite foods and activities when he perseveres through that initial period of discomfort, it’s still really hard to watch him struggle and I’m often confused about when to let him quit.
The stereotype that autistic people don’t like new things is something of a misconception by the way – it’s the transition involved from ‘sameness’ to ‘newness’ that can cause stress, not necessarily the new thing itself. It’s an important distinction to understand, because it’s very easy to get stuck inside a safety bubble of sameness out of fear that new experiences are to be avoided at all cost.
But change, transitions and new things are all unavoidable and important parts of life, so the key is not to try and avoid them altogether but to provide supports to help autistic kids to cope with the discomfort these moments can bring – a map to help them navigate away from their comfort zone and through the stress of change.
So here are some ideas for the kinds of supports you can put in place to make the transition to new things easier for your kids to handle.
Eliminate the unknowns
You can reduce the stress of a new experience by making it as familiar, consistent, reliable and predictable as possible. Find out as much as you can about the new activity ahead of time, and help prepare your kids with things like social stories, videos and role playing so they know what will happen and can feel a bit more confident.
Keep stress, excitement and pressure low
There can be a lot of expectations and emotions surrounding a new experience, which add to the tension levels and make it harder to cope with. So even though you might be eager to get started or super anxious about how things will go, try and keep things as relaxed as possible in the lead-up to the event and on the day itself.
Ease into the change as much as you can, to help close that intimidating gap between the familiar and the unknown. Approach the new experience in stages so it’s more easily digested and you have time to watch your kids’ reactions to it. A good guideline to keep in mind is the bigger the reaction to the change, the smaller the steps need to be.
Provide escape routes
Having a way to get out a stressful situation before it becomes overwhelming can reduce the pressures of dealing with the change of a new situation. So plan some kind of exit strategy upfront – make it easy for them to self-soothe if they’re uncomfortable, make sure they have a way to communicate how they’re feeling and the freedom to remove themselves if they’re overwhelmed.
Watch for signs of discomfort or fear
Keep an eye on how things are going so you’re ready to step in and help before the point of overload. Be careful not to misinterpret body language – laughter and smiling can be nervous reactions, for example. Stimming can be the result of both excitement and anxiety, as can talking about the experience over and over or asking a lot of questions about it.
If a new experience seems to go well, I often get so relieved that I make the mistake of rushing in too quickly to ask Max if he wants to do it again. It’s a difficult question for him and too much pressure, so he almost always answers ‘no’ regardless of whether he enjoyed it.
So while it’s important to follow up to see how they’re feeling, remember that new experiences are exhausting so it might be a good idea to leave some space between the event and talking about it. You can wait and see if they bring it up themselves or ask to do it again (note that this may not be the same as asking when you’re going to do it again, which might be more about anxiety or wanting to stick to a routine).
As for our flirtation with geocaching, well… it was short-lived. There’s a ‘sneaking around’ aspect to searching for the hidden caches that made Max feel uneasy, like we were doing something wrong or breaking the rules. So even though geocaching wasn’t a keeper, it was still a success because he was happy to give it a try and we had some fun. Plus we added new words and experiences to his memory banks, which in turn will become waypoints to help navigate all those potential new favourite activities out there just waiting for us to discover.
About the Author
Bec Oakley is a special needs advocate, writer, blogger, and a parent of two boys with autism in Australia. Autism is part of what makes her and her kids who they are, so she’s passionate about helping people understand what it’s all about. Check out her excellent blog, Snagglebox.com.