Family Life with an Asperger’s Child – Routines to Survive?

Just as an ASD child looks, at first glance, like a neurotypical child, family life with a child affected by Asperger’s appears from the outside quite normal (at least most of the time). But in reality, everyday life with anybody on the spectrum is a dance on thin ice.

Parents and siblings over time become experts in prevention of aggressive outbreaks, melt-downs and/or anxiety attacks. Everybody ends up – consciously or unconsciously – bending their behavior, reactions, verbal and body language around the ASD person to shield them and themselves as much as possible from the explosive possibility of transition screams, excursion refusals, homework disasters, dinner melt-downs, TV nightmares and bed-time battles. Parents go through elaborate procedures to ensure that everything is in its place and routines stay the same.

It all starts very innocuous, by doing what many other parents do: We cut out tags that irritate, we quickly replace the favorite toy that broke, we cut up sandwiches in the correct shape, we serve their favorite chicken nuggets, we buy the toothbrush in the favorite color or we let them watch their favorite TV show at a certain time.

However, slowly but surely with an ASD child – it is hard to notice when you cross the line – certain preferences are not outgrown, but solidify into a must-be-this-way-or-I-explode. So we are faced with buying only that cereal in the red box or nothing will be eaten for breakfast, searching a certain brand of socks because all others don’t feel right, having to be home on time for that TV show, playing every song from the favorite CD in the car three times, switching all light on and off twice before leaving the house … and all of a sudden, confined in almost impossible restraints on your life, you think – how did I get here?

So then you are faced with a decision: try to hang on to your sanity and break the cycle by insisting on a change, but face ongoing melt-downs and refusals to leave/eat/sleep/dress – or keep everything the way it was, with a fairly smooth sailing routine, but paint yourself into a corner of ever increasing obsessive-compulsive behaviors. It is not as easy an decision as it might seem. If you yourself are overtired and stressed, have to go to work on time or have other children to take care of, it often seems that conforming is much easier. It is certainly more predictable since you are the one that does all the work. If your child gets worked up, there is no telling how long the melt-down will last and what other ripple effects this will cause in your family. However as you realize that the routines get more bizarre since you can’t help the downward spiral or if you get the unfiltered observation of an outsider to refocus for an instant, the shock of how much your home life is ruled by the demands of a child and how incapacitating these routines are for you AND your child, you come to a point where something needs to change. But change isn’t easy. Asperger’s kids are strong willed, insisting on their routines, which after all bring them comfort and take away anxiety, and have thus much more at stake that just “wearing new socks” or “watching a different show”. The common advice of “Just serve nothing else but veggies to them for a couple of days and they will eat them” does not work – if you can’t stand the sensory input of mashed potatoes, the battle is not about food, but changing developed coping mechanisms (“don’t eat this”) for negative input. Overcoming this can take more than a couple of days. Why wouldn’t you fight change with all your might, if only switching the light on and off enables you to control your anxiety?

But, in the end, you must help you child to break though this barrier – slowly, gently, compassionately. If you can’t change routines, you need to at least divert them, expand them, soften them. There is a very fine line – and it is different for every parent and their child – at which you need to intervene if you want to enable your child to live without the constraints of OCD. You might be only able to change one of the routines at a time, it might take weeks and in the end your child might replace the routine with something similar, but you will eventually teach your child to be able to bear a bit of flexibility without an anxiety attack or aggression. If you keep the same routine going without ever challenging it, you won’t give your child the chance to realize they have outgrown it. So in order for them to function in this world – and is that not the ultimate goal for our children? – we need teach them that changes in routine, while not pleasant, are survivable.

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Introduction to Asperger's Sydrome, help and support by a teacher and mother of 2