Thoughts of summer often include exciting anticipation of warm, sandy beaches, fruity popsicles, and laughing with close friends. With COVID-19 restrictions beginning to loosen in more than a year, many families expect a much more active social calendar than in the summer of 2020. This is also a time of year when our students at Beacon Day School experience a change in school routines. Those blissful summer thoughts can be quickly replaced by anxiety, feelings of overwhelm, and fear of unexpected events. These worries often lend themselves to pervasive thinking in children with autism or developmental disabilities. Obsessing on little details can build rigid thinking: the lack of flexibility to adapt to changes and transitions or think about concepts in “black and white” terms.
Inflexible thinking can be continuously disruptive when it comes to social situations, like controlling conversations, games, delayed gratification, unnecessary transitions, and changes in scheduling. Anxiety and stress can arise when routines that are familiar and predictable are suddenly changed. Here some ways that will help encourage cognitive flexibility and reduce stress:
Utilize daily schedules and structure
Even neurotypical people follow schedules, and sometimes when an unexpected event pops up during our day, it can be stressful. A visual schedule is the best way to communicate what their day will look like and what to expect. This schedule can look different for each person who may need it, but it should be concrete and predictable to diminish any anxiety about the day’s events.
Prepare often and consistently
Prepare your child for any upcoming day-to-day or small moment changes. For some individuals, this may look like a parent-led discussion of how the next day will look like the night before. This predictability can reduce stress and gives your child some time to process and understand what their day will entail. With more significant changes to the schedule, you should allow more time and opportunities to prep your child, such as a doctor’s appointment or special holidays and celebrations. Social stories can be a great way to introduce change, offer coping skills and a sense of stability.
Rehearse social skills and coping skills
Allowing your child to practice what to do in specific situations can help prevent the inability to cope with new situations and teach your child how to act without the pressure of the actual event. For example, if Mason, a student with autism, wants to play with Olivia, who is playing by herself, we can practice what Mason can do if Olivia says “yes,” to his offer, but we should also prepare him on what he should do if she says “no.”
Discuss what should happen if your child suddenly feels overstimulated or experiences other feelings triggered by the environment. We can practice using our headphones if noises are too loud or practice deep breathing when anxiety is triggered. Their confidence will grow as they see coping skills being effective during rehearsal.
Create calculated, small changes
This strategy is fundamental because it builds upon what your child already knows, likes, and expects and incorporates some changes. Some ideas include switching up small activities within a consistent primary schedule day to day or doing an activity in a non-usual location. Make sure you are offering choices and exposure to a well-rounded selection of communicative and sensory-regulating tools. These options help with managing control and power struggles.
Create purposeful, minor problems within your daily life to help your child practice problem-solving, appropriate coping skills, and flexibility. These can be minor “tweaks” to your schedule, like singing a different hand-washing song or taking a different route home from the grocery store. Make sure you are prepping your child before the change and positively encourage while the change is happening. Give praise if your child attempts to use their coping skills.
Utilize Coping Skills
Coping skills will help your child learn how to regulate their emotions to tolerate potential anxiety-creating changes in a functional way. There are hundreds of calming-based coping skills out there, but some easy ones that do not require any special equipment and can be done anywhere are deep breathing, tight self-hugs, pushing hands and palms together, or positive self-talk. Coping skills will look different depending on cognitive development, sensory integration, and personal preferences.
We all have those days when we need to use “Plan B.” Discuss your own flexibility skills in the moment with your child. Make sure you express your thoughts and explicitly state how you will be solving your problem. It takes time, persistence, and exposure to the new language, and problem-solving skills. By utilizing these strategies, you become a living example and help your child to apply this type of thinking in their own life. We hope your family can make a smooth transition into summer activities, and from all of us at Beacon Day School, we hope you remain safe and healthy this season.