My son has always been a “clockwork kid.” From the time he was an infant, he kept the same schedule. He would eat every three hours, almost to the minute. He woke and slept at the same times every day. And without fail, he would wake up at 1 am and want to play until 2:30 am every morning. It made being his mom very easy. I knew exactly what to expect and when.
That same sense of structure and schedule is key to helping my Asperger’s son feel safe. He feels like he can anticipate the world and knows how to handle things when we follow the same basic routine daily.
We have meals at the same time — daylight savings has no sway in this one. He will have lunch at noon for six months and then when the time changes, it will be lunch time at 1:00. Making space for him to be able to follow his personal schedule makes things calmer in our home.
So this leads me to ask myself what else can be done to help an autism kid feel safe? What kinds of things would a newly diagnosed child’s parents need to know to help their world calm down? I’ve come up with several things that really have made a difference for us.
Make a Nest
Soon after my son was diagnosed (at age 7), I asked the doctor how to make my son feel safe. Life had been so stressful for him, and he really needed something to buffer the emotional noise outside. She suggested soft things to help him calm down when he needed to.
So we created his nest. We put pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals into a circular pile in his bedroom. He loved it! He would bring his tablet into the pile of softness to watch a video, and it is a great place to decompress. It’s still his favorite place to head when he needs alone time. He tells me it helps him feel secure when there is something cozy on all sides of him.
One of the best investments we ever made for my son’s sanity is a sensory swing. The ones from the Occupational Therapy stores are nearly $500… So I made my own! I took some aerial yoga silks and carabiners and secured a couple beams to the ceiling in the basement.
We had to reinforce the joists, but it is perfect for his needs. Again the tablet will follow him into the swing. I find him in there daily. The gentle squeezing sensation of the hammock swing really helps calm him down. It also helps him with his sensory needs, helping his brain understand where his body is in space. He has gotten less clumsy as he uses the swing.
I’ve sat in the swing myself, and it is really fun! There are several kinds of swings available commercially. IKEA has traditionally had one that several of my friends got for their kids. And they are reasonably priced. But when I tried to find it, I wasn’t able to. So I found this one so you can see what I am talking about. It’s from Amazon, and we just use the middle part of the swing, since the handles aren’t needed for my son’s goals.
You also don’t have to attach the swing to the ceiling. There are many swing stands out there. We simply chose the ceiling option because my son is a bit awkward and has knocked over swing stands in the past. But definitely try a stand before using the ceiling since it’s temporary.
Be Accommodating at Meals
Meal times can be very stressful. My son has specific tastes, like most kids on the spectrum. So before I start prepping a meal, I will ask him what he wants to have. He loves that I want to accommodate him, and he loves telling his friends that he gets to choose his own food. We still do our best to eat healthily, but that one thing makes mealtime a breeze.
I know there are those who don’t think making two separate meals for the family is a good idea. But I take the time to make his requested food because it reduces his stress. We will work on expanding his diet at a different time. We all know that will NOT be a relaxing experience.
Make Space for Them
I think everybody needs to have their own space sometimes. After spending several hours doing homework or errands, it helps us to give each other space. I may take a “Mommy time out” in my room, alone. Or my son may request some alone time to play some Xbox games.
For our family, it’s important to allow that time. It helps us each process through the events of the day and when I see him again I have renewed patience.
If your spectrum family member is anything like mine, they collect a LOT of the things they are passionate about. My son had 25 smoke detectors when he was 4. And that collection takes space. For us, we allow him the needed space by making sure he has a dedicated storage area for special items. I try to contain his collections to his bedroom because then I can safely shut the door when we have company and all his precious things remain untouched.
I’ve gone to great lengths to be sure his car collection has shelves to sit on. And his smoke detectors are safely stored in his closet. I took a lot of time to teach him about the dangers of 9V batteries, and they are only stored without batteries in them — and I keep the batteries in a safe place. I make sure the electronic toys he takes apart are in plastic storage bins. Those sharp pieces aren’t safe any other way. He can’t keep all the pieces, but the important ones he saves. These dedicated storage areas are how I maintain my sanity while allowing him to be himself.
I know you already love them or you would not have read this far. This final section is a reminder to all of us that when we get frustrated, as we all will, we need to step back and remember why we are doing this. We love them! And we need to do our best to show it. For this reason, I take regular “Mommy timeouts” so that my personal frustrations and issues aren’t something my child has to deal with. I encourage you to do the same. And in the meantime, be sure that you are showing love in the ways your loved one will accept.
My son hates to be touched by strangers. Sometimes he is even upset if I tap him on the shoulder. But when he is upset, sometimes he will accept a hug. And when he will accept it, the hug will calm him down. I also show him love by listening to him and encouraging him on a regular basis.
For our family, I also have to keep my voice down. Yelling really upsets my son. When he was younger, he told me it was the scariest thing in the world when I yelled. So I had to work really hard to stop. Now I only yell if I am calling him from upstairs. That one act of love has reduced his stress levels drastically.
You Can Do This!
If you are new to the Autism adventure or just trying to figure this out, you need to know that you can do this. Your desire to make your home a haven for your child or loved one is a wonderful thing, and every small change you can make will be a blessing. These are the changes we made in our home. But your family is different. Make choices based on what is best for you, and don’t be too hard on yourself. These changes came about over the span of a year for us. Taking baby steps will get you where you need to go. Don’t let the process of reducing stress, stress you out.
This article was previously published on Abby’s blog at Patheos.com
Abby is capable and caring. She is learning more about Autism and parenthood every day. And even though she is the first to admit she makes a lot of mistakes, she is so grateful to be on this journey. She comes from a family with many autistic members. She invites us to join her, as she shares her adventures. She wishes to emphasize that Autism is a difference not a defect. If you or a family member have autism yourself, Abby wants you to know that this isn't a bad thing. And you or your loved one are not sick or broken. Together we will teach the world this new language.