Transitions are difficult for the majority of toddlers, let alone BIG changes like adding a new baby to the family, travelling for long periods of time, or moving to a new house. So when we were getting ready for Baby Clara to make her debut this past spring, I became increasingly worried about Alex, who had been the center of our attention for the first two years of his life. His daycare provider (who only watched 2 or 3 other children at her home, so it was a perfect setting for a “shy” boy like Alex) had mentioned to my husband that Alex seemed to have more difficulty with transitions than the other kids she watched. It didn’t stand out to me too much at the time since 2-3 children wasn’t exactly a good-sized control group, but I did wonder if Alex would have more trouble with losing his Only Child status than your average 2-year-old. Still, I don’t think anyone in my family (even me, a known catastrophizer/Drama Queen) was prepared for the change that we saw take place in Alex after his sister was born.
I think Alex had less difficulty dealing with Mommy being away at the hospital for a couple of nights than he did with the drastic change in routine that occurred when I returned home. One of the first nights we spent at home after Clara was born, Alex woke up in the middle of the night, sobbing inconsolably; I held him in my lap in the dark hallway and he wrapped his arms around me tighter than I would have thought possible. It took over an hour to get him to calm down enough to go back to sleep, still wrapped up in my arms and whimpering.
Alex’s behavior changed in a lot of ways that I was sort of expecting, too; he started pushing his boundaries a lot more and throwing tantrums, particularly when I was home alone with him and his sister. I had even been prepared for some minor regression like I had read about on online forums, like crying like a baby for attention or suddenly deciding he wanted a pacifier (typically the one that was already in Baby Clara’s mouth). But what happened was a lot more drastic then those more typical changes: Alex’s language, which was already quite delayed, all but screeched to a halt. He refused to make eye contact with anyone who was holding the baby and suddenly couldn’t be in another room without a parent. It took almost 3 months before I started to realize that this probably wasn’t normal adjusting behavior.
We slowly began to put a new routine into place, putting extra emphasis on a consistent bedtime routine, and Alex gradually grew more comfortable with Clara being in the same room as him (now he will even pat Clara on the head or pet her belly to say goodnight). Alex slowly started to use the speech that he seemed to have forgotten, but making his way back to where he had been before his sister was born was painfully slow. It took about 3 months before Alex’s willingness to communicate got back to where it had been, and his social interactions (e.g., eye contact with parents; playing interactive games with Nana and Papa) are still recovering.
One of the characteristics commonly (but not always) seen in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder is “an insistence on sameness” and/or “inflexible adherence to routines” (including difficulties with transitions). (Diagnostic criteria comes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition; see https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/diagnosis/dsm-5-diagnostic-criteria for full list of criteria) There are plenty of theories as to why this is but I feel like common sense kind of prevails here: if someone is a visual learner and doesn’t understand abstract language- i.e., if anything someone is talking about is in the past, future, or not right in front of you, it’s basically meaningless- then having any deviation from your norm would be a major curve ball. If I were suddenly transported to Japan, where the only sentence I would understand would be the ever-helpful watashi wa fune ni yota (probably spelled horribly wrong and roughly translating to I am seasick), it would at least be comforting to know that I could depend on my home to be the same when I got there and for happy hour to be at 5:00. If suddenly these things changed and I could neither understand what happened nor ask anyone for help or to explain, I’d be upset too (and also pretty pissed that someone stole my wine).
So anyway, as it turns out, a new baby in the house was even more of a game-changer then we had planned on. I guess it worked out in that it probably got us to pursue an evaluation sooner than we might have otherwise, but things in our house have definitely been calmer. I had been planning on returning to working, probably part-time, in the upcoming fall or winter, but with Alex in need of multiple therapies and my husband already working full-time it became apparent that there weren’t enough hours in the day for me to work and take Alex to therapy sessions and spend time with my baby daughter and husband (let alone sleep or eat or, you know, maybe shower). The closest family to us was my brother, Uncle Peter, who lived 2.5 hours away. My husband and I went into action (read: panic) mode and I did my best to watch both kids while Zachary looked for jobs closer to family.
Fast-forward about a month, Zach was offered the PERFECT music teaching gig in the town where I grew up and where my parents and many friends still live. What was supposed to be a 2-week trip to visit my parents turned into a permanent stay for the kids and me, while Zach drove back to our house alone to pack things up. All in all, we couldn’t believe how lucky we were for that teaching job to have opened up when it did and for Zach to have landed it so quickly. The problem with this, in case it isn’t obvious, is the second massive transition Alex will now be undergoing in a matter of a few months.
Cutting to the chase here, we need some help! How do you possibly explain to any toddler, let alone one with very limited verbal skills and with low tolerance for change, that he won’t be going back to his old bedroom? And what about our new house (when we find one…don’t get me started on that)…I’m having trouble picturing him falling asleep in a new, empty house unless tranq darts are involved. On our 2-day drive to my parents’ house, Alex and Baby Clara were surprisingly content, and Alex even had fun playing some not-so-original speech games I made up along the way (i.e., yelling Truck! Trees! Big Mountain! as we passed them). It was only when it started to get dark and Alex realized he still wasn’t starting his bedtime routine that he very quickly fell apart. Alex was hysterical and literally grabbed onto the hotel room doorway and wouldn’t let go, and Zach and I were starting to think we weren’t going to get any sleep at all when I decided to try showing Alex around the hotel room. We turned the lights back on and I carried him around the room, labeling random objects along the way, and he abruptly stopped crying. When I told him first sleep, then Nana and Papa’s house, he actually smiled. By the time Zach had taken Alex out for a short drive and showed him the front of the hotel that we were staying in, Alex was fully content and fell asleep in the hotel room bed without issue.
So clearly visuals and explaining in simple terms are helpful, and I know professionals recommend doing visual schedules or social stories to help with any sort of new situation. But I’ve never put together either of those things and honestly don’t know where to start, especially with such a novel topic like moving halfway across the country. I would seriously love any ideas, guys! Any other autism parents out there who’ve gone through anything similar? Did you try anything that seemed to help? Or that failed miserably? I’m especially open to ideas that don’t take 8901723 hours to make and that an energetic toddler can’t rip to pieces instantly.
Since getting to my parents’ house, Alex took a few steps back again in terms of his social communication. I know my parents weren’t ready for how bad he seemed when we first arrived (the last time they had seen him was the week after Clara was born). Five days later, Alex is almost back to where he was before we left Wisconsin; however, visits with friends have also resulted in temporary lapses (as well as an increase in stimming and repetitive behaviors). In my picture perfect world, I was going to be taking road trips without the kids to visit friends overnight and catching up on all the kid-inappropriate movies I could squeeze into one night; back in reality, I realize that this is going to take some time (or maybe a lot of time).
And yes, I know that life is full of surprises and that we can’t control every little thing that happens to our children (I wish!). I know that there will be constant change and unexpected events that are bound to throw them off balance. Still, I feel like it’s my job as Mommy to give my kids all the tools they need to adapt to changes when they’re still young and (hopefully) still blissfully unaware of how hard life can be sometimes. So I want to thank all of my friends for putting up with me cancelling on plans and missing phone calls and for basically being a crappy friend while trying to be a good mom. And to all of you who keep re-making plans and calling me anyway, I love you and am so damn lucky to have you.