One of my five year old students with Autism ran out of the stairwell and down the hallway, leaving an earth-shattering scream reverberating off the cream-colored tile floors. I jumped up from my office chair and moved at a quicker-than-usual pace toward him, passing a few wide-eyed college students along the way. The little boy’s mom stood by, helplessly, wondering what set him off this time, while the college students started to snicker.
No one snickers at my students. Therefore, the students received an Autism 101 lesson right there in the hallway.
I went to the mom and asked her to give me the events of the morning up until he stepped onto the stairs. As we rehearsed those events, Mom said, “Well, he was fine until we had to take the stairs instead of the elevator.”
Aha! What would make a 5-year old have a meltdown over not getting to take the elevator? Was it simply a tantrum? I don’t think so. Of course, Auties can throw tantrums just as well (and sometimes better) than the next kid, but unless you can step inside their world a minute, you won’t really know.
From my work with kids on the spectrum and from the wealth of research out about ASD, I’ve learned that these kids live in a world of high anxiety and fear. The social realm is a scary place for them, words and language can be like a 5,000 piece puzzle (which they’d probably prefer). Since they can’t predict the actions of others or catch the social nuances, then they seek out things that are predictable and safe – like spinning wheels, lining up items by color, flicking their fingers, or rocking. Those activities are predictable, completed, and within their ability to control.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? How many of us feel completely at ease in a new situation where we know no one, have no idea what’s going to happen next, aren’t sure whether we’ll survive the next moment, can be confident that the person we rely will be back…AHHH. Sounds kind of like my first experience with childbirth.
It’s easy to automatically assume as child is spoiled rotten when you see him screaming, crying and throwing himself against the floor – but be careful. For certain there are plenty of spoiled rotten kids in the world, but as a Christian we must seek to show mercy & grace first.
After five minutes of a ‘break’, where this little kid went into a darkened room and talked to himself, he emerged with a beautiful smile on his face ready to play & learn. He just need to work through his fear – he expected to take the elevator (as he usually did) up to my office. When someone else took the elevator before him, his little mind started going into panic phase. “If this doesn’t work out like I’ve planned, what else is going to mess up?”
He’s a beautiful little boy, with a personality that blooms every week – what he needs is understanding and guidance.