Friday, February 11, 2011

Breaking Patterns

Sometimes my sons patterns are helpful. Sometimes they are not. One thing I have been told by health workers consistently along this journey is that I just have to break them.

.... anyone ever tried to break a habit? ... How about an autistic kid's pattern?

Yeah. Not as easy as it sounds. My son is typically stubborn and yeah, pretty obsessive over certain patterns. The repetition and familiarity of patterns make him feel secure and in control of his life. So naturally, he stresses over changes. Now, I don't want to brain dump on you all here, so I'll try to break this down into more easily digestible parts - patterns with an autistic kid encompasses more than you realise if you haven't experienced it before!

Break it or just work with him?
The thing is, it's all too easy to just go along with them sometimes. If I allow it, ultimately we will achieve what I'm trying to get him to do alot faster. It might take longer for him to do something than it takes my girls, but in the end, it's faster than having a full blown meltdown to deal with - right? But in the long run, this isn't helpful. In fact it's just setting us both (me and my boy) up for alot more heartache further down the track - imagine if he was still having to stand up on the couch to put his shoes on at the age of 12! I have to break them.

This can be a depressing thought if you let it get to you!! I mean, when I think about it, this is going to be a part of my daily life forever, it seems. At least until he is grown up anyway. And even then, who's to say just how independently functional he will be?

I can't afford to think like that. As with many parents of children with a disability, I need to take one day (and sometimes, one hour), at a time. If I decide to tackle a pattern, then I am committed to that battle, and the outcome, ultimately, will be beneficial for the whole family, not just my son.

Anything can become a pattern! Anything!
I have to be very careful what actions, activities, routes, etc. I take with my boy, because any of those, if repeated more than once, can become a pattern if the fancy takes him. Especially if done consecutively. Are you frustrated? Welcome to my life! Haha! If I don't mind a particular thing becoming a pattern, that's fine. But if not, then I've just created trouble for myself. I need to be constantly vigilant to the activities of our day/week to make sure I don't create monsters that will come back to bother me later on. This gets a bit brain draining. I like my habits too you know, but the difference is, I can deal with inconsistencies, whereas my son cannot.

For instance, parking in the same area at the shops every time we go - habit for me because I like that particular entrance or parking lot. But I can deal with parking somewhere else, especially if the shop I want is closer to that entrance. My son, on the other hand, would just about have a cow if we did that (and yes, it has happened - not literally, but you get my drift :P). So to prevent problems, I try to park in a different area every time I take him to the shops with me. The aim here would be to teach him that it's ok to walk in through a different way.

I can and must choose my battles.
The good news is, I can choose my battles. And if I value my sanity, I must. I am in this for the long run. I cannot go pushing myself to breaking point for the sake of a pattern - there are other members in this family and I have to be mindful of their needs too. If I go to pieces, who is going to pick up my load and carry it?

How I choose my battles.
There are a few factors to consider when I choose what patterns to break and when.

1. Time. Is there enough time to allow for dealing with the imminent meltdown?

2. Location. Is this place appropriate/acceptable? Are the people here going to be disrupted too much? - it's one thing to have to deal with unavoidable meltdowns in public, but I don't want to go out of my way to disturb people either. I need to be considerate of those around us, for their sake and ours and in light of that, I try to choose the timing to avoid being in places that I'd rather not deal with meltdowns at.

3. My mental/emotional capacity. This is a pretty important one actually. The worst thing to do is to start trying to break a pattern, only to get halfway through and have an emotional crack-up myself. When we start, it is imperative that I win the battle. It is pointless to start and then give in to his way because I can't cope. Don't get me wrong, there are times when I must concede the point and allow my boy to do what he needs to do, but if this happens too often, all he will learn is that everything in life is a fight. I need to be in a strong emotional frame of mind before I tackle any pattern.

4. His mental/emotional capacity. The same holds true for my boy. If he is sick, tired, overstimulated, nervous, anxious, already adjusting to some other changes, or even slightly off, I won't even try. To do so would only place more stress upon him and usually just make his 'autistic symptoms' worse. The last thing I want to do is introduce more anxiety to his life, so I need to consider his emotional capacity for change. Breaking patterns are a really big deal for him.

5. Family environment. This is sort of an extension of the last point. If there are other changes going on in our family at the time, I will usually wait till they have settled. It is difficult for him to adapt to change, so one thing at a time makes life easier for him and has a better success rate all 'round.

On the other hand, some changes can facilitate pattern breaking. Holidays are a great time to break old patterns and establish new ones. New places mean that there are no patterns set as yet, and so there are plenty of fresh 'untainted' opportunities to introduce new things. And if we're diligent and luck is on our side, we can often bring the new patterns home with us.

A good example of this is where my boy graduated from high chair to table for meals. Our last holiday place didn't provide a highchair for him, so we used a booster seat at the table with the family. When he came home, he climbed up into a chair and decided to take his meals there with the girls. Naturally I encouraged this, and he hasn't been back in the high chair since!!

How long does it take to break a pattern/establish a new one?
On average, it takes about 4 days for my son to stop having meltdowns and fighting me. From about day 5 to day 8, he doesn't fight me, but he does protest passively. He will flop, drag his feet, not respond and generally be a big pain, LOL. But at least he isn't kicking, screaming and pushing at me. It takes about 2 weeks for him to fully embrace the change. So from about day 8 to the end of the week, he is quiet and cooperative, but not really pleased. However, once the new pattern is established, he works with it and comes to look forward to the familiarity of it, just like the one before.

A warning though!! - All of this is only if I am consistent in implementing the change. If I cave and regress to the old pattern just once in the whole process, we are back to square one! This is why, once we are committed, we must see it through.

On the upside....

Come on, everyone has a bedtime pattern don't they? Just because my little man's pattern is a bit quirkier than most people's, doesn't mean we have to break it! Patterns can also make life alot easier. I know what to expect of him, he knows what to expect, and generally the whole family knows what to expect.

We've broken a few patterns now, some have been very successful, others I wasn't so diligent with and so they have regressed. Putting shoes on, getting into the car and moving rooms in daycare are some of the successful ones. Walking the same route into grandma's house is one that is not so great, and he is now generalising part of that pattern to other things - specifically, that he must begin his walk from the car to wherever by standing right in the gutter in the street. Yah.... you can see how awesome that one is. LOL. Part of this whole deal is watching for patterns that are emerging too, and sometimes they can surface before I've realised what is going on. Fun stuff.

Long post...... thanks for reading!



  1. Wow! What an inspiring and practical post! My kids aren't autistic, however your 5 points to choosing your battles still apply here!! Thank you for your honesty and wisdom. Your children are blessed to have you.

  2. Thank you Amelia!

    Hmm... now that you mention it, I guess those points can apply to regular kids too. Who knew! :)