Thursday, January 1, 2015

Autism Lesson 1: Disequilibration

My New Year’s resolution is to post monthly essays about autism.  People who love someone on the ASD spectrum need all the knowledge they can get, and post-secondary education for students with autism is one of my areas of expertise.  Ergo, this post on New Year’s Day, 2015.

My friend and I are Harry Potter scholars.  My HP house is Harry’s own Gryffindor; hers, Slythindor.  Leave it to my friend to create Slythindor.  No house fit her exactly, so she created her own.

My friend calls me Professor Dumbledore.  I call her My Young Traveler.  I drove 250 miles round trip to attend the midnight premier of The Half Blood Prince with her.  We also went together to the midnight release of The Tales of Beadle the Bard.

I was a fifty-something college professor.  She was a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome in our university’s Autism Support Program.

My Young Traveler (whom I shall call YT) taught me much about people on the autism spectrum.  One of the most important lessons she taught me was why change in routine distresses them.

Last night I watched an episode of Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon left home because impending changes threatening his life routine terrified him.  Leonard wanted to live with his new fiancé, Penny, instead of Sheldon.  Other life changes also threatened him, so he felt that he had no option but to run away somewhere… anywhere… indefinitely.

My friend, Rosie, told me how her five-year-old son escalated when she varied her route home from his school.  Logan’s after-school routine was to get into Rosie’s car, ride to McDonalds® for a snack, and then ride home while eating his snack.  One day Rosie detoured to the dry cleaners while Logan was eating his snack.  Logan panicked.  “This is not the way we are supposed to go.  We are supposed to go to McDonalds®.  I am supposed to get a snack there.  Then we are supposed to go home while I eat my snack!” He burst into tears.

In The Autistic ABA Therapist, Kelly Londenberg explained how changes in routine affect her.  She plans her movements like a movie.  If she wants a glass of water, she visualizes standing up, crossing the living room, entering the kitchen, selecting the glass, etc.  Once she begins this routine, an interruption causes her to escalate because it disequilibrates her.

When I asked My Young Traveler to explain what made a change in routine so difficult for people with autism, she asked, “Dr. Gore, have you ever been walking along the sidewalk thinking about something and then fallen off a curb?”

“I have.”

“You know how jarring that feels?”


“Well, that’s how it feels when something changes our routine.  You weren’t expecting to fall off the curb.  You were startled and your body filled with adrenaline. It made you feel sick.  That’s how it feels to us when somebody changes something in our routine.”

So if you love someone with ASD, think about how upsetting falling off a curb feels to you.   Then when you must change your loved one’s routine, remember that he’s going to feel that same panicky, sick feeling.  Avoid the change if you can, but if you can’t avoid it, prepare him for it gently.

Make that your New Year’s resolution.  And make me stick to mine.

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