Break in routine necessary but also scary

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Mike was happy. He leaned in toward me, eyes wide, smile wide, arms wide. I leaned in until our foreheads were but inches apart and he erupted in laughter, giddy, giggling laughter.

Twenty minutes later, Mike was unhappy. A scowl on his face, he screeches, "'Side!" indicating he wants to go outside. He cries when told he must wait. The swing does not sooth him; the computer game is not amusing.

Another 20 minutes pass and Mike is happy again. This time the happiness continues the rest of the day. Raised eyebrows are paired with a chuckle. There are frequent requests for familiar games¬? "I'm gonna get you!" Mike is cheerful and content.

What happened? All day was great except for 20 minutes of a really unhappy guy. Oh, of course, he was asked to do something new. His schedule was changed.

"There is comfort in consistency, but growth in change." I am thinking of hanging that quote everywhere I go to remind myself. One in my house, one on my desk, maybe one in the van, all to remind myself of these two very important, very conflicting settings we create in our environments, consistency and change, the yin and yang of education, in fact, of life.

It is true for most people; it is certainly true for me. In menial, everyday actions, I find comfort in consistency. Driving the same route, wearing the same clothes, shopping at the same stores, listening to the same music, all of these things bring me comfort.

But it is when I stretch, when I change, that I grow. I find a new song I really like, drive by a pond I didn't know existed or I discover a flavor of tea that brings me new joy.

For me to stretch can be uncomfortable, it can make me nervous, anxious, maybe a little afraid, but it isn't too difficult for me to change. Then again, I'm neurotypical.

As I watch Mike, I see that change is much more difficult for him. Of course, he is affected by autism. His brain is wired so that noises can be quite painful (I know this because I have watched him howl in pain multiple times from unexpected, loud sounds.) He is also very sensitive to touch; a bump I wouldn't even find annoying can cause him to shed tears. This hyper-sensitivity can make life a lot less pleasant and make change a more frightening prospect.

So, as educators, we are sensitive to Mike's needs. We understand that Mike needs to feel safe to learn and if things are changing, Mike does not feel safe, therefore, Mike will not learn.

But wait ... isn't my new favorite quote, "There is comfort in consistency but growth in change?" How can I keep things consistent and still help Mike grow?

There is our balancing act. We must change, but it needs to be one thing at a time, in a controlled manner.

We work hard to keep the schedule consistent and to signal changes with both a verbal and a visual warning.

If Mike could control his curriculum, it would consist of familiar tasks done at the same time every day. But this would not teach Mike. So, I need to go against one rule, "Ensure children feel safe," to access another rule, "Teach the children." Mind you, the children always are safe; they just may not feel they are safe when things change.

Fortunately for Mike, he does adjust fairly quickly. We frequently remind ourselves, "Remember, the first time is the worst time."

Second go-round is much better, and by the fourth/fifth time, Mike has accepted the new activity into his schedule and he is rolling with it. All will be well until he has mastered that task, and we move on, changing his routine again.

Of course, hopefully, this curriculum of change will not only teach Mike reading, math, language and writing, but also teach him to accept change. Ah, now there is the prize.

So tomorrow, I will wear something different, drive a new route and scan for a new radio station. I may find my new shirt is itchy and hangs weird. I might get lost and be late for work.

Perhaps all of the other stations will have awful music or talk about subjects I am not interested in.

But I will take those chances for Mike. For tomorrow I will also ask Mike to change, and he shouldn't have to do it alone.

Kathleen Gilmore, a resident of Walla Walla, has taught individuals affected by autism spectrum disorders for more than seven years. She has a master's degree in education and is a board-certified behavior analyst. She is the founder and president of Eastern Washington Autism Spectrum Disorder Association, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness and helping families affected by autism. She can be reached through the group's website at www.ewasda.org.

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