ASD Children and Their "Resistance to Change"

"I need some methods for helping my autistic son to accept that things change from time to time, for example, accepting the new baby that's due in August, moving to a new apartment (we need 3 bedrooms now), and other changes that seem to disrupt his comfort zone."

One very common problem for young people with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) is difficulty adjusting to new situations.

While all of these children love new material things (e.g., toys, games, digital devices, etc.), most of them have difficulty adjusting to a new environment, new homes, different teachers at school, or any other major changes in their daily routines. Even new clothes or changes in their favorite food or drink can cause frustration and emotional outbursts.

Children on the autism spectrum need a steady routine and a familiar, consistent environment because it helps them to stay organized and to know what to expect or how to act. So, they rigidly stick to old habits, and their rigidity often results in obsessive and/or compulsive thoughts and behaviors.

While there are many reasons AS and HFA children resist change, most of these reasons have a common source: FEAR. These fears are often related to loss associated with the change. All change involves loss at some level, and this can be difficult to contemplate.

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Some typical reasons for resistance to change include the following:
  • Resistance can stem from perceptions of the change that AS and HFA children hold (e.g., kids who feel they will be worse off at the end of the change are unlikely to cooperate).
  • Change gets these “special needs” children out of their comfort zone. When we talk about a comfort zone, we are really referring to routine. Kids on the autism spectrum love routine, because it helps them feel safe and secure. So there is bound to be resistance whenever change requires them to do things differently. Whether it's new rules, new seating arrangement in the classroom, new academic subject matter (e.g., moving from addition to multiplication in math class), or a new baby in the home, changes to routines are very uncomfortable. 
  • Don't mistake compliance for acceptance. Children who are overwhelmed by continuous change may resign themselves to it and go along with the flow. You may have them in body, but you do not have their hearts. Thus, motivation to cooperate is low. 
  • When these children do not trust in their ability to cope with change, resistance often results. This may be related to their experience of change in the past. They had to make a change back in the day that was very distressing, so today they view ALL change as distressing.
  • Misunderstanding about the need for change may result in resistance. If the child does not understand the reason why things need to be done differently, you can expect resistance – especially if he or she strongly believes the current way of doing things works just fine. 
  • Not being consulted often results in resistance. If these children are allowed to be part of the change process, there is less resistance. They get the sense that they are being heard and that their feelings count.

Some examples of “uncomfortable” change kids must face include the following:
  • A friend moving away
  • A new baby in the family
  • A parent taking a new job or losing a job
  • Abandoning bad habits or picking-up good habits
  • Adopting a different routine or schedule
  • Attending a new school 
  • Different financial circumstances
  • Hospital stay
  • Illness
  • Meeting new people
  • Moving to a new of house
  • New teacher or new friends
  • Parent making new childcare arrangements
  • Recent death in the family
  • Separation or divorce of parents
  • Visiting a new place with new settings

There are a number of symptoms that AS and HFA children exhibit that are signs of an adverse reaction to change. These may include:
  • Active attempts to disrupt or undermine the change process
  • Aggression 
  • Anger
  • Anxious, clingy behavior
  • Attention-seeking
  • Become withdrawn
  • Complain of headaches, stomach pains, or over-sensitive to minor scrapes
  • Have a tough time concentrating at school
  • Insensitive and disagreeable behavior
  • Lose interest in things that earlier interested them
  • Loss of appetite
  • Not listening
  • Not responding
  • Portraying themselves as innocent victims of unreasonable expectations
  • School refusal
  • Seems disinterested
  • Sleep problems
  • Tantrums
  • Unusual flare-ups of emotion

Of course, each of these does not necessarily mean that these children are opposing change. They might be indicators, but could just as easily be indicators of other issues in their life. Real resistance usually occurs after their uncertainties and questions regarding change have not been adequately answered.

Kids with AS and HFA often develop rigid thinking. They want a particular thing done at a particular time, in a particular order, and in a particular way. This is because they often feel a loss of control over important aspects of their lives. What is normal and routine for “typical” children can be difficult and frustrating for AS and HFA children.

Imagine having your body respond clumsily when you’re trying to play, or being dragged from place to place by your mother or father and not having the cognitive ability to understand why. By holding tightly to what they can predict, these kids find a little bit of comfort in their otherwise chaotic world.

A youngster who is totally inflexible to change is going to have a lot of difficulty coping with reality. Life is random, full of last minute mishaps, misunderstandings, schedule changes, etc. The sooner you can acclimate your AS or HFA child to change, the better.

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Here are some strategies for dealing with a rigid-thinking youngster:

1. Let your AS or HFA youngster know of some changes in life you have undergone – and how you managed them. Your examples are a way of helping him cope with change in the future. Relate to his situation. Tell stories about when you have had to weather the storms of change. Also, you can talk about what you might have done differently – something that could have facilitated a better outcome. Alternatively, you can talk about the changes within the other family members and how they changed with circumstances.

2. Always demonstrate love and appreciation when your child “tries” to accept a new situation with courage – even if he is unsuccessful. In other words, be sure to reward effort with acknowledgment and praise, regardless of whether or not the desired outcome occurred.

3. Create behavior incentives using something that is the same each time (e.g., tokens, tickets, stickers, etc.). Let the sameness of the identical token be the familiar thing during the unfamiliar situation. You can also use marbles dropped into a jar (the smooth texture and “clicks” when they drop is satisfying to most kids). For example, explain to your youngster, “When we leave the park today, if you don’t cry, you’ll get a marble to put in the jar when we get home.” Let her cash in the marbles for a reward at the end of the day.

4. Don’t unintentionally reward your youngster for acting-out due to an unwanted routine change. Uncontrolled anger warrants a predictable, swift consequence. Losing a particular privilege may be the best consequence for AS and HFA children. Be firm. Don’t underestimate your youngster’s ability to manipulate you. Even severely autistic kids can be master manipulators.

5. Focus on just a few areas where flexibility is needed most. For example, if your youngster is constantly distressed when you’re out running errands, this is the place to start. If he is upset over having a babysitter, start there. If he won’t leave the grandparents’ house without a tantrum, focus on that issue.

6. While helping your “special needs” child to deal with change, be prepared to weather the storm. There will be sadness, tears and tantrums – followed by parental guilt. It’s all part of the process. Remain calm, and accept you youngster for who and what she is.

7. Change itself can come quickly or slowly, but adjusting to the new state of affairs takes time. Make sure you give your youngster – and yourself – the luxury of having time to adjust. Try not to expect too much too soon. Some changes are easy to adjust to, others aren’t. Some AS and HFA children adapt quickly to change, some don’t. As the parent, simply keep doing what you are doing and know that most changes eventually leave everyone in better places than where they began.

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8. Attempt to see things from your child’s point of view. Ask her how she perceives a particular change. A child who airs her misgivings about unwanted changes is more likely to cope better. Talk about the details of what will happen, where she will be, and what she will have to do. Doing so repeatedly helps your child feel prepared.

9. Encourage your AS or HFA youngster to explore and engage in new activities and interests. In this way, you help her cope with change that will come later in life. When she goes through various new experiences, it provides a fundamental base that strengthens her emotional muscles. It helps her feel good about herself and develops self-confidence.

10. Kids on the autism spectrum love to follow a routine. Anything away from that worries them. They feel best when they are able to predict things. They feel safe when they know what is on the agenda for the day or what they have to do next. They want to know how other people are likely to behave or react, and what will happen from day to day. So, if you and your youngster are undergoing a significant period of change, try to keep most of his routine the same.

11. Turn the change into an adventure. For example, turn “Are you ready to start a new school year” into “Wow, just think. You’ll get to see all your classmates again.” Since any change can seem frightening to children, the language you use can turn the change into a fun adventure. Changing the tone to one of excitement can make a world of difference in your child’s attitude.

12. Prepare your AS or HFA youngster for what may happen – and be honest. Voice your plans in a reassuring tone. Explain to him in concrete terms where you will be going, or what may happen along the way, so that he is prepared well before and ready for the change. Also, answer your child’s questions, and tell him the truth (i.e., don’t sugar-coat the situation) so that trust develops. Many tantrums can be avoided, because you keep reminding him throughout the day of what’s going to happen so he is ready for change.

13. Read articles and books about the change in question. Almost any change that your child is going through has been written about (e.g., potty training, new siblings, moving to a new neighborhood, etc.). Go to the library and get as many books as you can on the topic and read together. Reading helps open the lines of communication to talk about the difficulties of the change.

14. Help create sameness by repeating a similar comfort phrase (e.g., “Sometimes we have to change our plans, and we will be O.K. when that happens”). Use this exact phrase (or something similar) every time flexibility is needed. This helps to bring a sense of control and predictability during chaos. Your youngster will remember that you said that the last time a change was needed – and everything eventually turned out just fine.

15. Many kids on the spectrum have difficulty with the concept of time. But, you can provide your child with simple strategies to measure time (e.g., use an alarm clock or kitchen timer for task transitions, clean up times, or evening rituals). Let your child place a calendar centrally, and help her keep track of important dates (e.g., birthdays, holidays, vacations, the first day of school, etc.). Signal your child verbally or set countdowns for when she must leave an activity that she is enjoying (e.g., “I’m going to turn off the computer 10 minutes because we are getting close to lunch time”).

If you want your AS or HFA child to accept change, you must first understand why he may resist. By anticipating his likely reaction to a change in routine, you can make intelligent decisions about how to introduce the change.

Change involves strong feelings. Think about a recent change that you have had at home or work. How did you feel in that situation? Excited, motivated, happy, energized and optimistic? Or worried, angry, depressed, sad and anxious? Maybe your emotions were both positive and negative. But the odds are that you felt something very strongly. If you still remember that change, it's probably because there was a feeling attached to it. For “special needs” children, the initial response to change is often negative. Young people who have difficulty with change seem to unconsciously scan a new situation for anything that is not to their benefit – then they resist and complain. This negative focus often blocks their awareness of any positive aspects related to the change in question.

Change also involves loss (e.g., when moving to a new town, your child loses one set of friends, but hopefully gains a new set of friends). If you want your child to accept change, you need to invest time in planning and communication. All too often, well-meaning parents just throw a change out there and expect their child to say, “Oh, I have to change my routine now? Well, O.K.” To get your child to accept change, the first step is to understand what – from her perspective – she feels that she is losing. If you can first empathize with her feelings, then begin to compensate for her loss, you have taken a big first step towards getting her into acceptance.

In summary: 
  • AS and HFA children need to feel that those who have power (e.g., parents, teachers, etc.) care about their concerns and will listen to them.
  • When possible, give your child options (e.g., “We have to change this or that. Which one are you the most comfortable with?”). The more choices your child has, the more he feels in control. Some of the energy that previously went into resisting change will then be diverted to accepting it.
  • “Special needs” children are more likely to adjust to change when they feel that they have the skills, knowledge and abilities to succeed. The faster parents and teachers can help these kids move through the learning curve, the faster they will accept the change. 
  • The AS or HFA child is more likely to accept change if she has some input into how it will be implemented. When possible, ask for her opinions or suggestions about any aspect where input may actually be used. However, never ask for input that you don't plan to consider. That will only make matters worse.

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