Autism: Coping With Routine Change and Socializing

Summer is a time for last-minute plans and staying up late. It’s a time to catch up with friends and to attend fun events like vacation Bible school. And it is, apparently, a time that ratchets up my daughter Rachel’s anxiety level. I’m sure Rachel is not the only person with autism who experiences increased anxiety with a schedule change and large groups.

Tonight I took Rachel to VBS for the first time. I had a lot of anxiety about the issue and almost backed out numerous times, but our church has a wonderful group of people dedicated to making a safe place for special needs children to attend church. They made arrangements for Rachel, so I needed to let her go. Plus, it would be good for her, right? Socializing and getting to experience something new …

I could tell she was nervous when she wouldn’t let go of my hand despite the fact that she had one of her favorite teachers and was in the same classroom as always. But, in her defense, since when does church happen at night? And why is everything so noisy? And where did all these kids come from? And where did her mom go again? Church usually only lasts one hour and it was three hours before she saw mom again (even though I was in the building the whole time—with another class).

When we got home, Rachel sank into a chair and asked for a snack, but spent more time feeling the chair’s fabric than eating. Her brow furrowed. Dark circles shone under her eyes. She stared at the wall instead of making her usual chirping noises. She then went upstairs and started playing on one of her musical toys that she hasn’t touched for a while, listening to the same few sounds repeatedly.

It didn’t stop there. By 11:30, she kicked the walls, screaming, and slamming doors. She colored all over herself with markers and piled all of her comfort toys on her bed. Even as I write this at midnight, I still hear her wandering around upstairs.

I wonder if I made the right choice in taking her. Socialization for children on the autism spectrum is important, but my mommy instinct is telling me that this might have been too much. If it were something long-term that she would get used to then it might be one thing, but by the time she gets used to this new routine, VBS will be over. Yes, going to church is important, but perhaps this was throwing her in a bit too deep.

I fight the instinct to overprotect her, but God also gave me maternal instincts that help me tune into her emotional state. I pray constantly for wisdom, and I know He honors that prayer. Plus, I can think analytically. Is the good of her going outweighing the negative effects? Perhaps not, in this case. She is getting other great opportunities to socialize, such as special Olympics swimming (a wonderful program!), so I don’t need to push her into too many things at once.

I think for us, balance is the key to peace. Too much excitement (even if it is a good thing), and Rachel falls apart. Too little stimulation and she gets destructive.

I will continue to pray about this, and perhaps some of this could have been solved by my helping out in Rachel’s class instead of another one, but I wonder if I am the only mom who deals with this quandary. I feel pressured to make certain my special needs child doesn’t miss out on some opportunity, but sometimes it feels as though the opportunity comes at a high cost.

What do you think? What have you experienced, and have you ever said no to something that seemed great, but perhaps didn’t turn out the way you expected?

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One thought on “Autism: Coping With Routine Change and Socializing

  1. Jennifer, I tried VBS with our son, and found there was too much stimulation for him as well. The well-meaning staff was extremely welcoming, but I felt it was too much. We decided to do as you mentioned and keep him in activities (he swims also with a local special needs program) that he enjoys without the stress on him. It’s been working! Keep up the good work!

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