Structure Needs Flexibility

Guest blogger, Michelle L.

As I was growing up (attended school, graduated college, became a teacher, and then became a mom), I was known as someone who likes structure and is good at making systems to have that structure.

However, it was not until my son was a toddler that I realized that I didn’t NEED structure, I wanted and used it.

When my son was a toddler, he started showing us that he NEEDS structure. He would get upset when we would turn a different way as we traveled to “the park”. Or if we did not go to the same donut store to get the same donuts, every single Thursday.

As he went into preschool, he started eating the same foods for breakfast every single day, the same exact food for lunch (every day), and then the same exact things for dinner every single night. As his parents, we started to question and wonder why this was happening. Was it a boy who just enjoyed the same route and loved the same foods or was there something more to it?

As he entered Kindergarten, the NEED for structure intensified and started to exhibit some behaviors if the structure was not followed to his brain’s liking. So, we decided to have him evaluated and our premonitions were confirmed. Our son who NEEDS structure has Autism, a neurodevelopment disorder characterized by persistent deficits in social communication and restricted repetitive behaviors.

His brain works best when he has a structure in his everyday routine.

What does this mean?
1. He still eats the same foods for lunch. Every single day. And we MUST always have frozen Smuckers Uncrustable PB and Strawberry sandwiches on hand because he might eat just one, or he might eat five that day.
2. He wakes up every morning asking what the plan is. We go over the daily structure for him so he knows what to expect. (We drive to school, you have school, mom or dad will pick you up, after school club, mom will pick you up, dinner when you get home, 1 ‘short’ hour of free time, bath, bedtime. If the structure is altered, there could be some unsettledness that happens. Anxiety is always at bay and ready to be exhibited.
3. When mom has to work on Fridays and won’t be there for school pick up, she wears her blue work shirt to signal to him that it is Mom’s workday and it will look different after school. (This type of signal for him helps so much and his brain is able to process and remember the different routines that will take place.)
4. Transitions are hard to maneuver. It brings anxiety to his brain when it’s time to move from one thing to the next.
5. Home is the safest place to be for his brain and brings the most structure, even though it can cause the most unrest sometimes.

How do we overcome and embrace the NEED for structure?
1. We have become a very structured schedule family. We do the same things, the same way, over and over, to bring rest to his anxiety.
2. We communicate over and over what is happening and if there is a change we make sure to let him know that it is coming.
3. We use timers for everything. It gives him a sense of beginning and end so he knows what the next thing is. It also allows a sound to make the signal instead of a voice telling him to stop doing something or that it’s time to transition.
4. We embrace the structure and love him for who he is and how God created him.

We are still learning and overcome new challenges daily. Every day brings new beginnings, and what works today sometimes does not work the next day. So even though the structure is built, flexibility is what is needed.

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