When our whole family (including grandparents and uncles) went to Disney World in September a few years ago, I spent the entire summer planning for the trip and preparing Samuel the best I could. There were still lots of meltdowns and he had lots of sensory overload, but overall, the vacation was wonderful. Without all that planning, it would likely have been pretty miserable for Sam, and the rest of the family.
When we took our kids on an airplane for the first time (other than when they were babies), I spent weeks preparing for the trip. From social stories to an actual practice run-through at the airport itself (we even got to board an empty plan!), I prepared him for every step along the way to minimize impact. I did everything short of actually flying the plane. And the trip went off without a hitch. Other than yelling, “We’re stalling! We’re stalling!” whenever the plane turned and banked (you can’t prepare him for the sensations of flying), I was shocked at how well he did! What would have happened if I hadn’t prepared him as well as I did?
Raising a child with autism requires constant preparation. Always thinking one step ahead. If I know our regular routine is going off course, it’s crucial to warn Sam about it. If we don’t, it brings the possibilities of meltdowns up to the level of near certainty. It means his behavior will be off for days afterward. It means greater frustration for everyone involved, and a whole lot of accompanied mommy guilt for not preparing him better.
But sometimes, I’ve chosen not to go the extra mile in preparing Sam for changes, or special events. Maybe because it takes a ton of time and effort, and I’m tired of writing social stories and answering hundreds of questions that seems to suck the life out of the thing we’re preparing for. Part of the fun of a special event is the anticipation of it, but with a child with autism, it’s not necessarily excitement in anticipation.
And then the event doesn’t seem as exciting anymore. So when our friends from Maryland made plans with us to host their son – Ben and Sam’s best friend they haven’t seen since we moved four months ago – I had a choice to make. I could have written a social story about how their friend was coming, and the fun things we’d do together with him. I could have talked through that he would spend time with just Ben sometimes, but he would also spend time with just Sam, and they could all three hang out together too.
But I didn’t.
Because you can’t prepare your child for every. single. thing. Surprises are a part of life. Things happen unexpectedly. No one has time to write a social story for when the bus has to make a detour stop because there’s a tornado warning in the area that happened after they were already on the bus and students have to take cover. And just how does one prepare their child for a surprise birthday party they asked for? It kind of defeats the whole purpose of a surprise party.
Part of being a parent of raising a child with special-needs is always being prepared. But since we can’t always prepare our child for everything that is going to happen in life, we have to allow certain circumstances to occur without preparation. On purpose. Planning not to plan. (Just to be clear, I don’t mean not planning for things that are life sustaining.) Our intentional lack of planning actually IS planning. It’s not about planning and preparing them for the event. It’s about the bigger picture. It’s using the event to teach our child how to cope with the unexpected. Hopefully the event is pleasant enough that it outweighs the consequences of not planning, which is why I strongly recommend this strategy with an event your child will like, and not something that will cause fear or grief. It’s the unpleasant unexpected of life we’re preparing them for with the happy unexpected of life.
So, what happened? Well, you can watch for yourself here. We have friends from Maryland who have family near us in Kentucky, so they brought the boys’ friend to our house for the weekend. He hid in the garage while I brought out the boys and our friend videotaped the reveal.
As you can see, Sam was indeed very surprised. (That would be our youngest son, Joshua, also incredibly excited, “How’d they get here?!” But the weekend was not without its frustrations. Because I didn’t have a social story about sharing one friend between two brothers, we ran into some logistical issues and some jealousy. Looking back, I could have still written a story to share with him after his friend’s arrival, but it just didn’t happen. (I’m thinking though that I’m not the only one who could have done more and didn’t, which is why I’m grateful for this community here at Not Alone!) We took all the kids to the skating rink for the very first time. I don’t just mean the first time visiting our local skating rink. I mean taking them roller skating for the first time ever. None of them had skated before. That’s a whole other blog post, but suffice to say the mommy guilt for not preparing Sam enough (or, you know, at all) hit big time on the skating rink as I watched him meltdown and succumb to sensory overload. Long story short though, he actually really loved it once we worked through his problems and had a few “come to Jesus” moments together.
This intentional non-planning still requires personal parental preparation even if you’re not preparing your child. You have to prepare yourself as a parent for the consequential fall-out your child may experience. Sometimes I’ve been surprised at how well Sam has handled situations I didn’t prepare him for ahead of time. Other times, well, not so much. That’s part of the risk we take when we choose not to plan. But you know what? Even the times when he didn’t respond so well, it was worth it because he was learning how to cope with it. Don’t get me wrong. I still kicked myself for not planning. Yet, despite the frustrations it caused him and even our whole family (including our guest), I still think it was good for him in the long-run. It was good for us to know how he responds to these kinds of situations so that we know better how to help him through it next time, or how to prepare him first if we so choose to do so. Because part of autism also means that a child may not respond the exact same way to the exact same situation every time.
Planning and preparation are good things. There are so many wonderful tools to help parents of special-needs kids. Social stories are great, and letting your child ask as many questions as they need to be able to understand what’s happening are helpful for them (though tiresome for you!) Yet even with all the available resources, it’s okay not to use them all the time. It’s good to intentionally prepare your child for the unexpected of life by intentionally not preparing them for every expected event in life. Sometimes doing nothing accomplishes more than if you did everything you possibly could.
Have you ever intentionally not prepared your child for something you knew was coming? How did they respond? What did you learn about your child?
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