Most people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) don’t like changes in their routines. It is all about rules, regulations, and order. This can be because they experience the world as confusing and chaotic, and it is their way of clawing back some sense of control. They like the predictability that a routine provides. If you know the end of the story you can relax and pay more attention to what is going on in the middle. People with autism call ‘normal’ people Neurotypicals (nt’s). Nt’s generally don’t like to know the end of the story – we like a surprise. You could say that I am the opposite of a person with autism – I don’t like routine and rules and will change my schedule at the drop of a hat depending on my mood.
My son Michael was diagnosed with autism a couple of months after turning three. He was lucky to soon get into the AEIOU – an intensive early intervention program in Brisbane for young children with autism. This was very stressful for him – a new place, new routine, and having to deal with other children with autism (they were often noisy and upset).He went there for 5 days a week and I drove him from the suburb of Auchenflower to Moorooka (a trip that took about 40 minutes). You have to think carefully about how you do things with ASD children because once you do it one way, you usually have to keep doing it that way. For Michael this applied to the route taken to and from the AEIOU. It was very important to Michael that I drive the same way every day. Any deviations would result in a tantrum or meltdown; a situation that can be very dangerous in a moving vehicle.
A couple of weeks after he started at the AEIOU I was driving Michael home from Moorooka. My daughter Tessa was two and she was also in the car. I wasn’t concentrating, it was raining heavily and my head was in the clouds, and I missed the usual turn-off on the freeway. What followed could be described as the beginning of World War 3 – Michael went ballistic. He screamed and carried on for the whole trip home. In the car he took his seatbelt off and was attacking me while I was driving. Being a responsible and thoughtful psychologist I immediately lost the plot and was screaming at him to stop. Poor Tessa didn’t know what the hell was happening and was crying. I kept driving as it was too dangerous to stop in the rain and on a freeway.
We finally got home safely, I don’t know how we did it, and Michael was still tantruming. God knows what the neighbours thought was happening. I got Tessa into the house and had to drag Michael screaming and kicking out of the car. Once inside I locked the doors because Michael was trying to get outside. He was punching and kicking the doors. I took Tessa upstairs – we often had to escape from Michael in those days – and left Michael to calm down by himself. This was a strategy that worked most of the time but not this time. He kept screaming so I carried him upstairs, put him on the sofa and wrapped him up in a doona and squeezed him hard. Like many children with ASD he likes the feeling of deep pressure on his body and it has a calming affect on him. Eventually he calmed down and stopped crying. The tantrum had lasted for about 3 hours. All because I drove the wrong way home!
PS. Michael turns nine at the end of this month and is doing extremely well. He certainly doesn’t tantrum like that anymore. This is partly because of the wonderful work done by the AEIOU. Thank you to all the dedicated staff of the AEIOU and founder Dr James Morton. The photo is of a sunflower that Michael grew from seeds provided by his learning support teacher Kerri at Holy Family school in Indooroopilly.