Autism from a mama who has been there. I am hoping to post every day this month. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments.
Rituals: They can get out of control!
I had a request for some examples of ritualist behavior. We all have rituals. I, personally, have to wash in a specific order in the shower. If I get distracted, I could walk out of the shower with shampoo still in my hair. It has happened before. Maybe before you leave the house, you check your cell phone, pat your wallet and grab your keys. Rituals, calm us, reassure us. They, in and of themselves, are harmless.
Unless they get out of control. I am going to talk about my son’s bedtime ritual. It started simple enough. A story, a kiss, a pacifier, and his sippy cup. Then he added that his pajamas had to be zipped low enough for him to be able to touch his belly button. (Harmless [at this point] stimming, also a gauge of his anxiety. The more fingers, the more stressed he was.) A special blanket had to be rolled up and looped around the top of his head. Soon a cloth doll and a panda were added. If anything was missed or given out of order, a significant melt-down would ensue. This was particularly difficult for our babysitters.
It was after a check-in phone call that we realized something had to change. When we called the babysitter was panicked, our son would not stop crying, and she was at her wit’s end. In reviewing the list we’d given her, we were shocked and ashamed to realize we’d left off the belly-button part. As soon as she unzipped his footie pajamas, he put his finger in his belly-button and fell immediately asleep. That was torture for both him and the babysitter.
I set to work. First, I had to stop the addition of any new items to the ritual. This was hard. Our son was so young and didn’t communicate at all. We all want to please our children, to make them happy. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible, so get rid of that guilt right now. A few months after successfully stopping any new attachments, I began the heart-wrenching process of eliminating the non-essentials. How did I know what things were non-essential? Guesswork, gut work, and listening to my child’s cries.
First, the footie pajamas changed to tops and bottoms. He could still get to his belly button, and he wore socks to keep his feet warm. Next, the cloth doll; gone. After that, the blanket moved from the top of this head to the foot of the bed. If it was a cold night, I’d spread it over him. It was there, but not looped around the top of his head. Eventually, he started removing items and processes on his own. I just needed to help him realize that he didn’t need these things.
He let me know when it was time to end things. That last good night kiss broke my heart.
Celebrate the small stuff. Be flexible. Laugh.