How Do Children with Autism Deal With the Unexpected? Part 1


This blog may be more appropriate for older children with autism and/or those children with the ability to communicate. And, not only communicate, but do it very well.

How do children with autism deal with the unexpected?

The reason why I’m aiming this blog toward older children (5 years and older) is because when our kids get older, they sometimes get used to their routines. Often, they love their routines and schedules a lot and will discuss them often (over and over again).

With that in mind, they learn to expect things to go a certain way. For example, an eight-year-old may come to expect to have his teacher at school on any given school day.

So, how do they deal when the regular teacher’s not there?

Teachers are people and they sometimes need to call in sick or not be at work for whatever reason. For most children, this only means they’re going to have a substitute teacher for the day. (I used to love substitutes because I remember those days as being a little more “relaxed.”)

Our child was usually pretty good when his teacher would call in sick. This probably occurred because he spent so much time dealing directly with his aide – he has had the same aide for years – that he never really had too much of a problem with the unexpected new teacher.

But, he did have problems with other “unexpected” situations.

What are some of the things that are unexpected?

Here are a couple of examples with our child:

About a year ago we went hiking near the Hollywood sign with some friends from out of town. The hiking trip itself was unexpected. We had told our son that we were meeting the friends for lunch, but after lunch the entire group decided to go sight-seeing. Our son was fine with everything at first, including the hike to the sign.

About halfway through the walk, the group decided to walk along a new path to try to get a better look at the Hollywood sign after realizing the more direct path had been blocked off by the City of Los Angeles (due to possible landslides).

The group began to walk down a narrow path. I was with my son. After a few minutes, our son became agitated and announced that he was uncomfortable. His exact words were, “This is too unexpected for me.”

On the one hand, I was extremely proud of my son for expressing his feelings in this way. In his history, he had not had too many moments like this one. I thought it was great that he was  communicating to us how he felt.

Moments like those had always been hard to come by, especially when our child initiated the communication. Again, I thought this was progress.

On the other hand, our son was actually uncomfortable and we didn’t quite know what to do at first. We were with a group that was hiking together. We were having a good time and were already on the path. Plus, part of me likes to try new things with our child. This is how he gains experience.

What did we do?

We split the difference.

I told my child that I understood how we were doing something unexpected. I acknowledged his feelings but then explained that things sometimes happen in unexpected ways. We were with a group that wanted to hike down this trail and that’s what we were going to do.

I asked our child to try to go a little further along the path. He held my hand and we went farther.

This ended up working because the next thing we knew we came to a clearing. Our child said this clearing was wider and made him feel better. We let the other part of the group go a bit further while we stayed with our child stayed in the clearing.

Eventually, we walked back.

When we were back on the main path, I congratulated our son on tolerating the hike even though it was something he didn’t expect.

Here’s another example:

Recently, I took my son with me to my gym on a Saturday morning. When we arrived, the gym was not yet open even though it was supposed to be. The employee who was supposed to open early on a Saturday morning had not yet arrived. There was a group waiting for the gym to open.

What happened?

Our child did not like that the gym was not open when it was expected to be open. He is very used to coming with me to the gym almost Saturday morning and the gym is always open when we get there. He told me, “Mommy, this is unexpected.”

As I had done before, I talked to my son about how sometimes things happen in unexpected ways. I assured him that the gym would be open in a few minutes, and it was.

Should we practice the unexpected?

Should you take a different route home because you know that your child expects the same route every single day and you’re changing the routine to “test” the unexpected?

I’m not opposed to things like that. Why not? Testing the waters may not be a bad thing. If it helps, why not?

I’ll discuss how to help your child with the unexpected more in my next blog.

To Find Kimberly Kaplan: or Amazon Kindle ebook “A Parents’ Guide to Early Autism Intervention”
Twitter: @tipsautismmom




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