The Pencil, Gumby and The Stress Ball
Let’s face it, we all have routines that help us manage our lives. I can think of at least three routines I use on work days: I have a definite routine that I follow each morning, and one before bed; I also follow the same route to work every day. Following these routines helps me to manage my day, and feel in control when starting and ending my day. I am sure many of you who are reading this article have some of the same routines. We utilize routines as a way to find control in what would otherwise be chaos.
There is nothing wrong with routines, unless we become so rigid and inflexible in them that we are unable to manage any kind of change or disruption to the routine. When this happens, we have a deficit that is creating a barrier to our quality of life. We become unable to see the possibilities, and miss out on many new experiences that can enrich our lives.
Most of us can be flexible in our routines. We can go with the flow, and bend enough to have new experiences. The changes may be small and happen over time or for short periods, and we can typically adapt. For people with autism spectrum disorders or other neurodevelopmental disorders, however being flexible and adapting to changes in routine can be extremely difficult. This can cause so much uncertainty and loss of control that the person cannot cope or find a way to adjust. This may cause the person to exhibit negative behaviors, cry, become more inflexible, or even cause him/her to flee the scene.
Flexibility, like so many other things, falls along a continuum. At one end, you have the person who is very rigid; at the opposite end, you have the person who is completely flexible; and somewhere in the middle is the person who likes routine, but can adapt to changes as needed. Finding that happy medium can be difficult for some people, and may be dependent on the day or the circumstance.
When I think of the person who is completely rigid, I picture a pencil. If I try to bend it even just a little bit, it remains inflexible. If I push and try to bend it more, the whole thing snaps in half and I’m left with disconnection and chaos. When I think of a person who is totally flexible, on the other hand, I picture one of those bendy guys (like Gumby) that you can twist in every direction and he still doesn’t break. He might become very contorted and knotted up, however, which can then cause just as much chaos as the broken pencil. In people, this might be viewed as passivity, just going with the flow without any control. So how do you find a happy medium between a rigid inflexible pencil and a rubbery completely flexible bendy figure? When I think of the person who is somewhere in the middle, I picture a stress ball: You can squeeze and squish it, but when you let go it returns to its former shape. It has some of the characteristics of the rigid pencil in that it holds its shape and can be firm. On the other hand, it also has some of the characteristics of the bendy figure because it can be squeezed and squished and lose its shape. The stress ball has flexibility within its rigid form.
Helping a person with a deficit in flexibility move away from rigidity or passivity toward a happy medium can be difficult. The best way to begin introducing more flexibility into the daily routines of individuals who are very rigid is to start adding very small variations. Those variations are very small changes to the normal routine such as moving the soap from one side of the sink to another, or putting the left sock on before the right sock. The size of the variation depends on the individual. Variations need to be big enough to be noticed, but not so big as to cause anxiety and meltdown. Variations are intended to introduce cognitive challenges, and allow the person to make new discoveries while expanding the ability to be flexible. This same concept can work for the person who is passive and appears to be too flexible. The difference comes in how the changes are highlighted for that person. Providing the very passive person with time to think and process the changes that are being made, and modeling how others think about those changes, is a way to begin demonstrating the concept of giving an opinion. For example, the child’s morning routine is to have a glass of juice with breakfast. The flavor of juice changes regularly, and the adult in this situation could model less passivity by saying, “I don’t like it when the flavor of juice changes every day. I would like it if we just had apple or grape juice in the morning.” The adult can then pause and wait to see if the passive child expresses an opinion. This type of behavior still allows for flexibility, but models the idea that expressing an opinion is acceptable.
Learning how to introduce, highlight, and process variations is a key concept in the work that we do in our clinic. I help parents to determine the best way to add variations for flexibility, and allow for processing time for expression of feelings about the changes. Finding the happy medium can be difficult; but the ability to have flexibility amidst routine usually leads to a better quality of life, full of new discoveries and experiences.