By Beth Ann
Change. It’s difficult for many of us. Humans have evolved to rely on predictability to survive. Makes sense, right? If a wild animal unexpectedly appears and attacks, it could mean end of life. So over time, we have found a certain comfort in predictability and routine. How do we respond when the unexpected happens? There are two ways the brain can process change. Change can mean something risky or threatening. For example, your boss retires and you get a new boss. You know very little about this person. You wonder if the two of you will have a positive work relationship or if your new boss won’t appreciate your contributions and make a change. This can be threatening and stressful obviously. Alternatively, the brain can perceive change as a positive challenge. Let’s say your boss retires and you are given a promotion into that vacated role. This will undoubtedly still be stressful but you’re excited. You look forward to new challenges and to making a difference in new ways.
Let’s imagine how a neurodivergent individual processes change. My son, Will, has Autism Spectrum Disorder. His brain functions differently than the neurotypicals’ brains. Certain activities mean extra work is required from him. For example, he has more trouble than others reading social cues, expressions and communication styles. Let’s say he spent months getting to know his math teacher. Math is a more difficult subject for him to begin with. It’s important that he fully understand his teacher’s methods, expectations, and interpersonal style. He eventually develops a rapport with her. He feels comfortable asking her questions and he understands her sense of humor vs. when she’s serious. Then his teacher has an unexpected leave of absence. Suddenly, that rapport and predictability are gone. He has no idea what his new teacher is like, and he has a final in two weeks. The unknown creates tremendous stress for him. What other kids may easily adapt to is more difficult for him. The anxiety sets in and that only complicates his ability to adjust. He tries relating to his new teacher with the same humor he shared with teacher number one. Only teacher number two doesn’t find it funny. Things spiral from there. Get the picture?
Even small changes such as transitions between activities can be more challenging for a neurodivergent child. Will loves making video edits. He goes through phases where he hyper-fixates on a particular celebrity. His first was Channing Tatum. Next was Dylan O’Brien and really, the entire Teen Wolf series. Then it was the members of BTS followed by the cast of Hannibal. Sometimes he would spend hours making edits. If I tried to move him to another activity, such as unloading the dishwasher, I began to realize I wasn’t going to get willing participation. Neurodivergents have fewer neurons or less active neurons in the reward center of the brain. That means that things that make some feel rewarded and good don’t have the same impact with neuro atypical kids. So not only was I asking Will to change his activity, but I was asking him to stop doing something he enjoyed and felt rewarded doing only to do something that did not make him feel good. As you can imagine, we had many an argument before I started changing my approach. What I learned was that predictability, which is appreciated by all humans to some extent, is even more important to Will. The concept of earning time to do something he really enjoyed was important. So was giving him clear expectations and advance notice. He will be eighteen in a few weeks. I still give him advance notice as often as possible. Whether it’s an appointment or an unexpected task, I tell him in advance, give a couple reminders and ample time to complete the activity. If possible, I’ll give instructions such as, “Please empty the dishwasher any time before 7:00 PM. This gives him some level of control over his schedule because routine and predictability are essential to keeping his anxiety at a minimum. I do worry about how this will translate in the adult world. Assuming he has a job at some point, it’s unlikely that nothing unexpected will happen. We continue to work on his coping strategies which help to lower his anxiety when unexpected things happen. I’m hopeful that as he matures, dealing with change and the unexpected hiccups of life will become easier for him.