Once again holidays are upon us. A time for rest, recuperation and fun with a touch of sun burn thrown in for good measure. So, why is it that for so many facing the challenges that Autism has to bring this can be a very difficult time?
We’ve all heard ‘Education Education Education’ and ‘Location Location Location’ but now it’s time for ‘Structure Structure Structure!’. Structure and routine are often serious issues for those on the Spectrum. Even to those without the almost obsessive need to know ‘what, where, when’ there is often an underlying need for structure. We may not always see it as some do but it is there.
I’m sure, like me, many of you all remember the mundane and brain jellifying ‘routine’ of school. The same subjects….same times…..same patterns to each and every day and week. Some of us would go as far as to call it ‘Hell’, I know I did! But, to those on the Spectrum those things that can be a torment to us are actually fairly comforting. Structure and routine bring ‘stability’ and a ‘KNOWN’ factor to what is happening. It is worth remembering again how on the whole for most of us we are relaxed about what is happening around us. We have a good mapped out idea of how each day and week is going to play out. For example we all know that at some point of the day we will have our dinner and often we know the part of the day it will be had in. We may not know first thing in the morning the exact timing that we will have our dinner…….but we are safe in the knowledge that whenever it is it will happen. To someone that has an issue with structure and routine a simple little thought like that is their ‘hell’. The lack of structure and the ‘known’ brings about a loss of security. Not knowing that something IS going to happen means there is a good chance it may not and so panic and worry can set in. For many the simple processing of information itself can pose the problem that a structure is heavily relied upon to get through the day. Some can get by with the simple comfort of knowing a day will be the same as others gone before, others are happy just by seeing a ‘timeline’ or breakdown of the day’s events but some need the constant reassurance of a schedule to hand so that it can be checked hour by hour.
That ‘Hell’ of school we may have felt brings comfort to others. Imagine then what can happen in the mind of anyone on the Spectrum when we remove that ‘comfort’. The breaking from school means a loss of uniformity to the day. Everything that has previously been done for a reason is suddenly meaningless. “ I get up at this time for school…..I breakfast at this time for school……I put my uniform/clothes on for school ” becomes “ I’m getting up at this time for????……Having breakfast now for????…..etc” there is no security or comfort in open thoughts like those.
The sudden loss of that comforting structure is often what leads to the problems that many parents can face at Holiday times making them not as pleasant as they maybe could be.
Have no fear as there are a number of simple solutions that can be put in place to help out. They may mean maybe not the lovely lay in that some get to enjoy but the calm it may bring in the long run is more than worth it.
When planning all your days try and structure them around the time frame that the School/Day Centre etc was using. If a person is use to getting up at a certain time for school then try and stick to that going through the same routine with getting dressed and breakfast. Have your schedule of events/actions that are to take place during the day fit the same structure of school so the first thing you do, even if it is something at home, starts at 8:45 (or when ever school would). Keep these things clearly defined on a schedule so they can be easily seen. Try to have breaks in your day and lunch at the time they usually would so that again this is bringing little change to what they normally do. If you follow these simple ideas out with the rest of the day then it is surprising just how much of a difference it can make! Another benefit to employing a structure that matches what they have been doing outside of holiday time is that it makes the return to norm easy as well. It can be just as much of a shock returning to a school schedule from holiday as it is the other way round.
If you are not able to offer the same rough structure they have been working to then do ensure you offer clear and simple schedules that can be accessed and viewed at anytime. These can be a real comfort to a person and please PLEASE ensure that you stick to them. Many of the people I have worked with will have a schedule in their rooms that they can go and look at and then a duplicate that can be taken out with them so that it is always there. If any problems are faced it is surprising how much of a difference just reassuring someone with their schedule can make.
There are a couple of pitfalls that I must advise you all about because I myself have fallen foul of them…….Weather and closing times. We are all upset when we find that we are not able to do something as planned but ultimately we know and understand that it can be done another day. Again, for those on the spectrum, this is not always easy to understand or take onboard. Not going somewhere or doing something often means literally that…..it’s not happening. To counter the fallout that can come about with such things happening it is good to always have a backup plan that you know they always love doing and having any distracters that work to hand. If you are worried that weather may be an issue then it can be a good idea to be a little ‘cagey’ with your schedule. If you have directly stated that something IS going to happen then they expect it. To help yourself you can get round this by simply naming something ‘Activity’, ‘Car’ or ‘trip out’. In doing that if weather etc stops your original plan then you are still safe and can change what you were going to do without them knowing or causing distress. Schedules are great but always stop and think about what you put on them as they can come back to bite you! As an example its worth remembering that relatives and others often let us down so sometimes it’s not always good to state that an ‘activity’ is happening with their favourite Aunt because if that person then doesn’t show it again can cause upset.
Another good idea is to touch base with any support workers or 1 – 1 people. It is easy to presume that we know everything, but, it is surprising the little changes that can have happened of which we are not always aware. It is always good to check on any new known problem areas or little tricks that can work to help in a tricky situation. We think we communicate everything but I myself have chatted with parents that return from holiday to say “we’ve found the old distracter of xxxxxxx no longer works” only to then say myself “ahhh yes did no one tell you that before you went away!” We are all only human and things can be missed so a quick catch up to check we are up to date on all sides can be a great help.
So, as you all head into the holiday season ……..make plans, be prepared and keep to schedule……….easy!!! (I know you’ll all need a holiday when you return!!)
(Written by Austin Hughes of AKO)