( Austin often likes a tune to go with pieces he has written so this time he has gone for the obviously linking track by Keane https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zx4Hjq6KwO0 )
So, it is that time of year again when everyone has pretty much returned to school. The many ‘obvious’ changes around this point we are within the Autism community very aware of. Changes in teachers, peer groups and repainted rooms are just a tiny scratch on that surface of the issues we all know can cause a difficulty for many on the spectrum at this time.
The transition from year to year is a big one and strewn with obstacles to catch us out. A great transition plan started back before the end of the previous academic year can go a long way to cushion the impact of these obstacles. Pictures of new rooms and staff or even the chance to visit them can take much of the sting out of them. Sometimes though this still has its failings. I have encountered many a child who has been given a GREAT plan. They are aware of their new teacher and even know some details about them. The room they will be in has been visited and even a spot to sit in picked out. This all sounds great until September rolls around and we find that new teacher is actually more of a Tony Hart than a dour scholar and has transformed this new teaching space into what can only be described as a section of the Rain Forest Cafe! Caffeine energised murals, loo roll palm trees jutting from walls and creatures hanging from ceilings have suddenly transformed that comfortable ‘known’ space into a living hell that can take a LOT of time for a child on the spectrum to acclimatise to. Also this can throw up trust issues. Within that is a stream of information clicking away thinking ‘hmmm you told ME I would ENTER this room shown in THIS picture…..and yet I walked into THIS!!’
If we were to list all those transitional issues this piece would take days to read! On the whole they are all things that with the right time and warning strategies can be put in place for.
However, what about all those things we CAN’T clearly map or be aware of until they actually happen? Those things that most people NEVER stop to consider, the other children themselves.
I am not referring to children who have left a peer group or those who have maybe joined after a family move. Here I am talking about the actual change ‘within’ the children.
Through life we all change. The way we act and think alters as we make our way through it. Some of the biggest changes come when we are children. Stop to consider toddlers and very young children just happy to play and sit in the sand with whoever happens to be there. As they move into the very lower ranks of school they do still stay together with a wide acceptance of each other. A ‘class’ or ‘form’ group nurtures that mentality for a while longer. When the time comes to graduate through the years we soon enough see that bigger group splinter and exist by form name only. That form is now made up of smaller groups. Friends who can tolerate each other, but don’t think much of others, form little cliques. Those who like a certain strain of music or favour a particular brand of clothing move towards each other like magnets. The children who want to sit and conscientiously work hard edge away from those happy to sit with pencils up their nostrils ready with a rubber band to fire with crack precision at any moment.
The very way children act, behave and how they want to just ‘be’ around others is for many years in a state of flux. I say this because those changes aren’t always immediate and can often be gradual as they still link to older friends they have always known before fully switching to that new clique. Even more confusingly is the fact that some of this can also be done conditionally! Within school a child might need to appear a certain way and only be with that set clique and yet away from there they are happy to spend time with those rejected in school for having the wrong trainers.
As mentioned some such changes can be very gradual. When you think about a summer holiday covering up to 6 weeks, and longer for some, you can understand why the difference in a child’s behaviour between the end of a school year and the start of the next can seem so sudden and vastly different to someone who doesn’t see them over that period.
These are things that most children, and then adults, learn to accept in life. It can bring some soul searching and wondering what they possibly did wrong but on the whole they continue with the flow understanding in the fact that the supposed status quo often changes.
Now though let’s stop to consider the youngster on the spectrum who maybe doesn’t so easily grasp or accept change. Much of the change that does have to be accepted and overcome is obvious and tangible. The issues can be seen and identified by that child. The problem is though; when it comes to the changes we have mentioned within children themselves they are not so obvious or tangible. That child on the spectrum finishes a year knowing the people they have learnt to accept, or in many cases just tolerate, and knows that in some way that is reciprocated. A set status quo exists around those parameters. So, how does that child cope when they return to school to find the person they thought they could once again sidle up to maybe no longer wants to share any amount of time or space with them? Nothing obvious has happened. They have done nothing they are aware of to cause this reaction so why has it happened?
If you stop to consider that a child on the spectrum may not always be quick to speak up or voice their worries then you can understand why such changes can present as a very negative time. The things and people that you thought were set in stone are now very different and for no known reason. On top of this you can’t clearly communicate this issue to anyone else and so it stews away inside you bringing its own ever increasing circle of anxiety.
Also at this point stop to consider how you have felt in life when someone has ignored or shunned you. Did you like that feeling? Did it not bring with it further emotional reactions within you such as feeling lost and alone? You can see how someone not understanding such a situation or in any way wanting to communicate about it could along with the anxiety start to feel very depressed.
So, is there anything we can do to stop this? Is it possible to line up your child’s peer group and tell them very Peter Pan style NOT TO GROW UP!!?? I think we know the answer to that is a definite no.
The truth is there is very little we can do about such changes in life, however, we should not just brush them away and hope everything will be ok. These are some of those almost ‘hidden’ issues that we need to be aware of. If a child is struggling, when everything possible seems to have been done, within such a transition year to year then DO stop to consider these points. Reflect on whether the issue could be this not so obvious and easy to grasp situation.
Consider carefully how to approach the subject. For me all personal issues are just that…… VERY BLOOMIN PERSONAL!!…. Someone trying to engage with me over them will instantly cut to my inner core and at that point I don’t know how to regulate the welling of emotion that I will feel. From that point on I am likely to just further shut down and withdraw or even act in a way that may not seem too pleasant (challenging behaviour) So, it is important that you approach such matters carefully and in an almost ‘throw away’ manner so it doesn’t seem so personal and direct. Remember to not just reassure that child on the spectrum that this part of life is natural and ok for them but that it also happened to YOU and everyone else around them. This can help stop that child feeling or thinking this is an isolated thing that has only happened to them.
We are not all mind readers so it can be very difficult to detect such issues. By keeping them in mind though and always stopping to consider the things in life that aren’t so stand out obvious you can be ready to bring reassurance, support and extra love should they present.
From a personal point of view I can say that I have very much struggled when people have ‘changed’. It is something that has always unsettled me and driven me to want to receive a clarification of WHY that person has changed in the way they have. Even on a day to day basis a person acting differently simply because they are in a bad/different mood can often cause me to be inwardly anxious about what is going on. I don’t stop to think ‘this will pass and all will be ok’ I just worry about and react to the change in mood there and then.
Life as a path can often appear a very obvious and set route from baby to child and on to adult. The truth is that path has many hidden twists and turns that at first glance we don’t always see until they are upon us.
(As ever it is important to point out that the Autistic Spectrum is very wide and diverse. With that in mind it is important to remember that our words are in no way meant to encompass everyone at any one time. People across the spectrum present with many different issues and some can cope with things that others can’t so please don’t ever feel that in what we write we are saying ALL will encounter or present with these problems)
Anna Kennedy Online