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When Things Don’t Go My Way

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by Katie Brady, LCSW
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| September/October 2012

We are all creatures of habit, but individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are even more inclined to create routines and rituals in order to make sense of the world. At times these routines can be functional and essential to living. For instance, we all probably have a routine of brushing our teeth; we generally re-create this sequence of steps twice a day, without giving much thought to our actions because the routine is entrenched in our brains. But often, in the absence of information or clarity, nonfunctional routines or expectations are created that can cause problems when things don’t go the way the individual with ASD expected.
Chances are that you can name some routines that your child or student with ASD exhibits. These could be having to line up Mario toys in order based on the sequence of appearance in the video game, insisting on driving to school a certain way, only brushing teeth with mom, turning on all the lights in the house before dinner, or going outside every evening to say goodnight to the stars and the moon. Most of these routines seem pretty benign—until a certain Mario toy is missing, or there is construction along the school route! Then, things have certainly not gone
the right way, and a meltdown may
be inevitable.
It’s important to understand that individuals with ASD create their own expectations and routines at many times, especially when they are not given enough information or when a routine has already been established (on purpose, or accidentally). To help individuals with ASD understand what the actual expectations are, and to prevent behavioral outbursts when a child thinks things have not gone his way, we as therapists, educators, and parents can help promote flexibility, prepare for differences, and pick battles wisely.

Promoting Flexibility
It is critical that we, as parents and educators, understand the value of teaching flexibility. Too many times I have heard someone ask, “Since my child likes routine, should we do the same activities in the same order every day?” I always emphatically respond with “No” and then explain how the idea of maintaining the same routine day in and day out is not only impractical, but it does not teach the child flexibility and instead sets the child up for failure when the routine changes.
Instead, the child should be taught a more functional routine of looking to a visual schedule or story to get information about what he is going to do. Maybe the child always comes home from school, puts his backpack away, takes his shoes off, and has a snack (functional routine). Then the child looks at his afternoon schedule and sees that he will have some homework time, a chore or two, and some leisure time. However, the order, length, and type of activities may vary each day.
We must keep in mind how to promote flexibility within specific activities as well. Using visual lists and schedules, we can let kids know what to expect. For instance, a list might tell the child that one day he will walk three laps around the lake—another day, five laps. And parents might have a rotating list that lets family members take turns deciding which route they want to drive to school.

Preparing for Differences
Equally important to promoting flexibility is preparing for differences, which means we have to be able to predict when differences might occur. We have to be especially practiced at thinking ahead about potential differences that will bother spectrum kids.
Luckily, it is easy for us to predict and prepare for some differences. For instance, when taking your child to the state fair for the first time, you can predict that it will be noisy, crowded, and overstimulating. You have a sense of what foods, games, and rides your child will enjoy, and what he will dislike. You can prepare by choosing the least busy time, creating a story or schedule to prepare your child, and bringing essentials (like noise-cancelling headphones or a preferred snack) should things head south quickly. If you know your child will want a stuffed Sponge Bob, you can choose to spend as much money as it takes to win that prize, or avoid the arcade area at all costs!

Picking Battles Wisely
Finally, we must remember to pick our battles wisely, and not engage in power struggles just for the sake of “proving a point” or “showing who’s boss.” I recently observed a classroom where a child chose a puzzle for her free time. She then wanted to get out another puzzle, but the teacher reminded her that the rule is one puzzle at a time. The child asked for “Letters and Numbers? Two puzzles?” but the teacher repeated the one-puzzle-at-a-time rule. Then, the child began crying and was upset for about 30 minutes, asking for both “letters and numbers!” In the end, she didn’t complete either of the puzzles.
One possible solution is to clarify the teacher’s expectation to the child. The child chose the puzzle icon and went to the puzzle area, so she clearly understood that it was “puzzle time.” However, she did not understand the rule about one puzzle at a time. This expectation needs to be clarified visually to the child, either through a checkout system or by letting the child know visually (using a first-then sequence) that she can complete the letter puzzle first, and then the number puzzle.
Another solution, though, is just to let the child have two puzzles. What is the point of limiting the number of puzzles? It turns out that for this classroom, the teacher wanted to limit the number of puzzles because it was easier to clean up, which does make sense. However in this situation, the expectations were not communicated to the child in a way she could understand, so the child created her own expectation. This led to her becoming upset and disengaged when things did not go her way. I would argue since the teacher could not communicate to the child effectively, she should meet the child halfway and let the child do two puzzles this time, then work on a visual system to clarify expectations for the future.

There are always going to be times when things don’t go the way spectrum kids expect them to go! Change is hard for kids with ASD. Now you have a better sense of strategies to use that will help your spectrum kid deal with change and unmet expectations. Often a preventive strike will defuse a real battle!


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. Sharon Lawson says:

    Great article Katie. Practical advice for all parents.