What is it about change that puts fear in our hearts and ice in our veins? People often think that this small part of life really shouldn’t be such a big deal, that we should be able to adapt to the situation no matter who, what, when, or where right? Yet change is something we all struggle with, children and adults alike—neurotypical or special needs. For all of us, change makes us hold our breath and pray for faith as we step into the abyss.
Often, I am asked to give a little insight into why little Jack and little Sally are flipping out at home or at school. And more often than not, that Mount St. Helens eruption of emotion has to do with change. Changes in people, places, schedules, green cups replaced by blue cups, fruit cocktail substituted for grapes, and Spongebob swapped for Fan Boy and Chum Chum—all elicit the same terror-provoking response. Small changes in life create a world of instability and unpredictability—a world that can quickly spiral out of control for the person who relies on the comfort of a quiescent and stationary life.
So why the sweeping fear and crushing trepidation over such minor adjustments to life?
Try this…imagine for just one moment that Scotty just beamed you up and planted you in another country. You don’t speak the language, you don’t understand the customs, and you have no clue where the bathrooms are. You don’t know what the food tastes like, in fact, you’re not even sure what’s edible and what’s not. You are alone in this alien territory and you have no interpreter, no guidebook, and no Anthony Bourdain to help you along. You wonder amidst the stink and stench of the unknown and are left drowning in the noise and static. You don’t know when you’ll eat next, where you’ll sleep tonight, and where you’ll wake up tomorrow. Fight or flight becomes your life and finding normal never seems further away than at that point.
That’s what life can be like for someone with autism.
When your brain has a difficult time with prediction, it’s hard to imagine what the day will be like when it starts off on the wrong foot. The entire day can be shot to hell because the train got off track from the beginning—because you have to live with a prefrontal lobe that doesn’t know how to problem solve around this new hurdle.
You know how to live through that above ‘beam me up Scotty’ scenario? You wait, and you watch, and you look for patterns among the natives. Eventually you learn what is food and where to buy it. Along the way you find the bathrooms. At some point, you pick up patterns in the babble and find yourself speaking a foreign language. Give yourself enough time waiting and watching, and you’ll find out that the thumbs up sign is obscene in Bangladesh. At some point, you become an Anthropologist on Mars and that’s what life is like for the autistic.
Yet our children’s lives cannot be so rigid and inflexibly scheduled every second of the day that they never have the ability to stretch that prefrontal muscle. How can you learn to adjust to change, if change is never allowed to come to you? Spontaneity has a place in all our lives, even in the life of the autistic.
Leave room for the question mark on the schedule, leave room to shake things up a bit, take time to turn left instead of right, and find a way to learn how to handle change rather than just accepting life at a standstill. There is a balance to life, even for the autistic—where we must strive to create a safe but not stagnant life.
This fear of change isn’t just the stuff of childhood—a great many of my adult friends are on the verge of a panic attack at the thought of me moving 1200 miles away to live the life of a beach bum (ahem Cheri Fraker). Change brings us all to our knees and we all long for the good ole days when times were better and life seemed easier. Yet without change, life becomes stagnant, and stagnation leads to a kind of cognitive inertia because we learn to accept the status quo. Change produces a frenzy of thought and creativity—change pushes us into an awareness once ignored and leads us to a future that is wide open.
“For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson