Transitions Are Not Fun

Transitions are not easy for kids on the autism spectrum, and they’re not a lot of fun for us parents either.

Going back to school after summer break can be really tough.  Not only do kids have to get into the routine of getting up early in the morning, sitting through innumerable lectures on things they don’t care about, and doing brain numbing amounts homework, they’ve got to deal with all the changes, too.  New teachers, classrooms, schedules and classmates, and maybe switching schools.  Or perhaps your child is no longer a child – he or she’s a young adult.  He may be starting college or looking for work.  He’s got a whole new role in life and a bunch of challenges that come with it: his first job, riding the city bus alone or driving a car, or maybe even moving out of home.  Stepping into a new stage of life is hard on our kids, and for parents it’s a scary, scary time.

The weeks leading up to a transition are generally all about getting ready.  We go over everything we can think of with our kid.  “Do you know where to go the first day?”  “Do you have everything you need?”  “What are you going to do when you get there?”  “What will you do if you need help?”  You might physically walk her through things a few times, help her find her classrooms or spend a day traveling back and forth to work until you’re sure she can do it on her own.  You might introduce her to her teachers, and tell her who to talk to and who to ignore.  There will be new skills to learn, like opening the lock on her P.E. locker and using the cafeteria, and perceptions to change.  “Kids your age don’t play tag at school anymore.  If you chase them, they’ll think you’re weird.”   “Yes, it’s okay that other kids swear in high school.  It’s up to the teacher to correct them, not you.”  “No, you can’t wear that outfit to work, even if it’s casual Friday.” 

Dealing with the anxiety is big, too.  For weeks or even months before the transition, we repeat the same things to our kids, over and over.  “You’ll do fine.  This won’t be that different from things you’ve done before.  You can do this.  It won’t be that bad.  You’ll figure this out.  I’ll help you.”  We talk to our children, calmly and with confidence, trying to mask the fact that inside we’re freaking out more than they are.  “What if he gets hurt?  What if he gets lost?  What if he does something terrible or someone does something terrible to him?”  The worst possible scenarios run through our minds, over and over, and we squelch them the best we can.

We talk to our children about emotion control – what to do if they get angry, anxious or frustrated.  We go over the options they have for calming down and their responsibilities to other people, that it’s not okay to yell at them or throw things or be mean.  And we go over the consequences for misbehavior yet again.  “People won’t like you.”   “They won’t want to help you.”  “You’ll scare them.”  “You’ll get sent to the principal (or get fired, or get sent to jail.)”  We don’t want to make our children afraid, but they have to know what the world will do if they misstep.  Whether it’s fair or not is irrelevant.  Our hearts break as we try to shove enough survival skills down them that they’ll be safe. 

Then the big day comes.  We push our children out the door (or let go of their hand so they can run forward.)  We drop them off in whatever new situation it’s time for them to face.  Then we find something else to do, something to keep us busy and distract us as the hours crawl by.  Like poking at a sore tooth, our minds keep conjuring worst case scenarios.  We use our own calming techniques to quit worrying, at least for a little while.  “She’ll be fine.  She’s a big girl and she can do this. The worst that will happen is I have to go pick her up.  Then we can figure it out and try again.  It will be fine.”

Finally, the first day comes to an end.  We collect our children and ask the question we’re almost afraid to ask.  “How did it go?”

Chances are that it went fine.  Everyone survived and nothing terrible happened.  There were some bumps, but overall it went okay.  The difficulties that came up can be fixed or worked around.  A little more education here, a few more skills learned there, and we’re good to go again tomorrow.  Maybe we need to pull back a little; maybe we were expecting a bit too much.  Or maybe our child just sailed through the day and we’re sorry we didn’t push him harder sooner.  But whatever happened, we made it.  We lived through today and tomorrow doesn’t look quite so bad. 

Or maybe it does.  Maybe today was a terrible day.  You’re holding your child and attempting to pick up the pieces and put her back together so she can face tomorrow.  You’re trying to figure out how you can change her environment enough to make it work, or who you can talk to that can help, something you can say or do to smooth her life out again. 

Sometimes transitions go smoothly, and sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes our kids pass through them so easily that we wonder what we were afraid of in the first place.  Other times the road forward is pretty rough, full of bone jarring potholes, wrong turns and tears.  When we hit times like that it’s tempting to turn around and go back, but the thing with most of the transitions in our kids’ lives is, we can’t go back.  We have to move forward.  Our kids can’t be twenty-seven years old and still attending elementary school.  Change happens whether we want it to or not.  The secret to navigating it is to know that whatever happens, you and your child will get through it.

You will, you know.  If things are terrible, you’ll find a way to change them.  If you’re child isn’t ready for the challenges he’s facing, you’ll ease him into them.  You’ll build his skills, he’ll mature, you’ll help change his environment and he’ll learn to deal with life.  It might take a month or two, or three or more, but however long it takes, you won’t quit until his life is better.  You will succeed, and so will he.

Transitions are hard.  But without them, our kids would be stuck in a never-changing world.  They wouldn’t grow.  They wouldn’t need to develop new skills, so they wouldn’t.  New opportunities would never come their way.  They’d never learn to solve problems and they’d never have the self-confidence to try.  Transitions are a part of growing up; they mature our kids and make them more capable.  They’re a necessary part of life, even if sometimes they’re really tough to get through. 

Transitions are good, even if they are scary.