First of all, I’d like to say that I am not picky with the term “special needs” ; I think today’s Mama Mondays post can help EVERY child! A child does not need to have a diagnosed impairment to require extra care and attention. Strong-willed children have special needs; “picky” children have special needs; sensitive or insecure children have special needs. Most children require a little extra help regulating anticipation and delaying gratification; Christmas can cause a lot of stress even in “normal” children with all the promises of upcoming parties and presents and the delay in realizing them.
For some children who have no concept of time, however, anticipating joyful events can be extremely painful: all promises of future enjoyment swirl around tantalizingly at the same time, all demanding immediate attention, creating a cacophony of desires, worries, and expectations that make present fun unenjoyable and future fun seem irreducibly distant. Not only are such children miserable, but their parents are usually worn thin with unceasing requests (I think there is probably a version of PTSD that applies to us parents of autistic children in particular!) No answer we give is satisfactory because the repetition is really a cry for help to sort out what is going on. Our children are lost in their own desires and have no internal framework for our verbal answers to help them. We can say, “We are going to Grandma’s on Christmas Day” a thousand times (in response to a thousand, genuinely distraught requests for Grandma’s house), but it has no meaning. When is Christmas Day? Is it now? Is it later? Will it never come?
Part of the difficulty in hearing those repetitive requests–from an autistic child or otherwise confused or disappointed child–is because our hearts go out to our children when we see how much they struggle with understanding what is going on. We want to help them; because we have no personal difficulty relating words to concepts of time sometimes we forget that some children cannot visualize what time is like. Even if our children are fairly well-regulated most of the time, the excitement of Christmas may be enough to disconnect whatever the child may understand of time and cause them to revert to a more immature understanding. In either case, it is immensely helpful to have an EXTERNAL reference the child can see to teach or reinforce WHEN to expect certain events.
Below, I have created a very simple “Sliding Visual Schedule”. You could make it in less than an hour. If you use it faithfully each day and try to stick to a similar routine each week, the repetitive requests for certain events or people should be noticeably curtailed over the next few days and weeks. Special Schedules can be made for certain times of the year (especially if your child is off school and off schedule); Thanksgiving schedules or Christmas Schedules, for example, can be introduced by saying, “We are going to have a different schedule this week because it is Thanksgiving. You can help me move the Day Slide over and the Activity Slide down.”
Of course, it may be useful not to mention any events in advance at all because this can be very confusing to children with special needs; if, however, your child is already anticipating or requesting something, this Sliding Visual Schedule should function as external scaffolding upon which an internal sense of time can be developed to put the desired outcome in its proper place. Once the child has a visual understanding of what is going on, verbal reminders (with pointing to the schedule) are useful to reinforce the concept: “We are going to Grandma’s house on Christmas Day, here (point). Today (point) is Christmas Eve; we are watching a Christmas movie tonight. Tomorrow (point) we will go to Grandma’s. We are still here (point) today and our day is not finished yet.” Now your words make more sense!
I printed an 11 row x 8 column table, with five simple activities each day of the week (you can use Excel or Open Office Calc, etc.). I used clip art to paste into the larger cells and wrote a descriptive phrase for each activity in the cells underneath. It is extremely important not to clutter your schedule with every activity you plan to do each day: your child only needs to know the “high-points” that will help him pace himself through the day. Keeping it simple will help your child not to become overly rigid with his schedule and will give you more grace to adjust plans as needed (avoiding further confusion or disappointment!)
The vertical piece of card (“Day Slide”) is slightly taller than the page: a v-shaped cut helps it to hang on the top of the page as it slides horizontally. The horizontal piece of card (“Activity Slide”) has two v-shaped cuts on each side that help it to slide vertically; friction helps it to stay in place so it is important not to space the cuts too far apart.
I put our schedule on the ‘fridge and secure the bottom of the Day Slide with a weak magnet that holds it in place without impeding its movement. Within three to four days our autistic child’s request for Grandma’s house reduced to almost nothing (by comparison): she now only asks for Grandma’s house when she is upset or confused about what we are doing (i.e. whenever there is a deviation from the schedule…she is still trying to figure out how going to Grandma’s house relates to each activity we are doing!) This is a significant improvement from being asked every five minutes (yes, literally that often!) if she can go to Grandma’s house.
I am going to give God the credit for this one. Not only was I beside myself with frustration and concern for our autistic child’s unceasing requests but I had completely forgotten how important visual scheduling can be. I asked God for help and this idea popped into my head. In the spirit of Christmas I can genuinely say: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth PEACE among those with whom He is pleased! I wish you and your children the same this year (and for the next).
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