Hi there – it’s Tuesday and that can only mean one thing; your latest Aspergers article. So with no further pre-amble here it is …
My son is 5 years old with Asperger’s. He really does well with a routine. My husband, his dad, has had to take the night shift at work. We did not have much notice. My son is taking this extremely hard. I always have had time to prepare him for any big changes in our life in the past. How can I help him deal with this abrupt change? This has been one of the biggest challenges I have had to face.
To begin on a positive note, it’s good that your son does well with a routine. This indicates that you have constructive knowledge of your son’s behavior. You know his range of behavior, how he reacts to various situations, and the type of environment he does well in.
Unfortunately, even the most routine situations do not remain consistent. Sometimes, the changes are planned, such as a job change or a move to a new home. Other times, the changes are abrupt, like your husband’s night shift change at work. Many changes are beyond our control. When these changes occur, they set into motion reactions in the home, especially reactions by Asperger’s children who dread a change in routine terribly.
Parents of Asperger’s children have described their reactions to change as follows:
Anguish – Worry and anxiety over the possible consequences of an event;
Ballistic – Sudden, often violent, reactions to change;
Despair – Remorseful, resigned behavior to a perceived tragedy;
Meltdown – Catastrophic behavior; as if “the world is coming to an end;”
Obsessive – A concentrated focus on the changing event to the exclusion of all else.
The component that drives this behavior is fear. Asperger’s children fear spontaneity and change because they have an inability to understand why change occurs and how to cope with change. To an Aspie child, routine is heaven, change is hell.
One important aspect of this behavior is that unorthodox behavior is not intentional; it results from the person expressing an honest reaction to changes in their environment. Therefore, you need to understand that your son will not immediately understand and accept your husband’s shift change at work. Try explaining the situation to your son slowly and repeatedly, and in simple terms. Tell him that, although your husband’s shift has changed, other situations at home will remain the same. Explain why the shift change took place. In addition, tell him that some routines might change, but others won’t. Encourage him to ask questions in advance of any changes, and answer them in concrete terms so that he has a sense of security before any more changes occur in your home.
Separation Anxiety: A Major Issue
Based on what you have told us in your question, a large part of your son’s problem is due to separation anxiety. This is an issue for all children, regardless of age or medical diagnosis, and it is seen in approximately 4% of the child population.
In the context of your son’s situation, separation anxiety is defined as excessive anxiety about becoming separated from you, your husband, and any siblings that might be in the home. Some of the symptoms seen in separation anxiety are withdrawal, depression, and difficulty concentrating. Children experiencing separation anxiety often exhibit generalized fear, anxiety over the possibility of death, and recurrent nightmares. Granted, all children experience separation anxiety at some point; however, it is more serious in Asperger’s children.
The Treatment of Separation Anxiety
In older children, separation anxiety is treated with psychotherapy and/or medication. As an alternative, doctors recommend relaxation techniques and deep breathing accompanied by homeopathic remedies, which are less harmful to children than prescription medication. You could look into using medication if your son’s symptoms are extremely bad, but, if possible, try to avoid it. Counselling will help if needed.
Ask your husband to spend a period of time with your son before he leaves for work and upon his return. This will help your son adjust to the new routine. Your husband can reassure him that he will return and at what time. He can praise your son for dealing with a difficult situation. Perhaps your husband could call once each evening to reassure your son that he will be home soon. A picture of his father or a personal item of his father’s may also reassure him.
PS – A quick update on the new website. This week I’ve been adding some great videos to the website including several really insightful interviews with young people who have Aspergers explaining how they experience the world. As ever keep your eyes peeled for the announcement of when the site is actually live, complete and ready to go.