Typical vs. Special – How Schedule Changes Affect My Children Differently

Austin getting a haircutOur family is a giant ball of crazy! You never know what is going to happen when the Parker Circus rolls into town. My wife and I have three boys, each in a different state of life. Our oldest, Michael, just started high school this year and the amount of teenage attitude has significantly increased. Our middle son Austin, who has autism, just started middle school and that has been a significant adjustment. Then there is the youngest, Luke, who is four. He is a three-foot tornado! No matter what we do or where we go, you can bet there will be people looking at us wondering if we are from another country, or even another planet.

What makes our lives the most challenging at times is the varying reactions we get from our children in different situations. Vary rarely are they all happy and usually someone is in an emotional tirade. Our daily outings are like walking through a mind field, trying to navigate our surroundings and not trip the bomb waiting to explode. This most often happens with our special needs son as it is hard to predict his reaction to what we are asking him to do. Sometimes they are funny, other times they are embarrassing spectacles.

In this series of posts, I want to share with you some of the different reactions I notice between my children as they react to different life circumstances. I will be comparing how my special needs son’s reactions differ from the reaction of my “typical” classified children. Feel free to think they are funny because they sometimes are very funny. Take them as a learning experience as to how special needs children differ from typical children.

Sometimes unforeseen schedule changes can create a world-class meltdown in your special needs child. I had a perfect example of this today. Some might say I have a death wish but once a month, my three sons and I venture out to go get our hair cut. Count them, that is four heads of hair. Over the past several years we have been utilizing the same salon and the same stylist. (Trust me, I hate the fact that I go to a “salon” to get my hair cut.) There are good days and bad days. Yes it gets very loud and rambunctious, so much so that my wife now completely refuses to go! We have appointments scheduled in advanced for the whole year, usually on Saturday morning at 10 AM but this week we had to make a change due to a coming vacation.

My wife picked the boys up from school and drove them to the salon to meet me since I was coming to work. As soon as I walked in, you could see the determination in her eyes to get out of there as quickly as possible. I greeted each boy as I arrived and as soon as I saw Austin, I could see the storm brewing in his eyes.

You see, Austin does not like surprises. He likes to have everything happen on a schedule and when the schedule changes, you can bet there will be a negative reaction. Autistic children often do not handle change well and they often have to have things a certain order or arrangement. For instance, they will eat the exact same thing for lunch every day just for consistency. Most days, as soon as Austin is picked up from school, he heads home where he can go to his room, shut his door and play his computer games. Today, once he noticed that my wife had turned a different direction after leaving school, his demeanor began to sink.

Michael and Luke, though they were not completely happy about getting their hair cut, they were able to adjust to the new schedule. Their initial reluctance went away when they realized we were getting our hair cut today since we would be at Disney World on Saturday. Austin on the other hand did not care about any of that. He just knew that this was different from most days and he did not like it.

As Austin sat waiting his turn, he would yell out “No haircut! Buh-bye haircut!” There was also a lot of growling, screaming and grunting as well. He hit himself on the top of the head, slapped himself in the mouth and stomped his feet on the floor, all while three of us took our turn before him. Once it was his turn, things did not stop. While in the chair he tried to turn his head away so the stylist could not reach his head. He would also try to grab her hand and push it away from his head. When we finally were able to keep him from swinging his arms, he resorted to the old familiar sticking his fingers up his nose and repeating “Fingers out of your nose! Fingers out of your nose!” (The picture above is from our trip today) Our stylist is amazing and she was able to dance and dodge around Austin’s protest. At the end, he was so upset that he was about to walk out the door without getting a sucker, which for Austin is a major reward that he loves. Just before leaving, he realized what he was missing and darted back in to grab his red sucker which we promised him then ran back out the front door.

This was not the first time we have had such an experience getting a haircut. One time Austin sat in the chair sticking his tongue out of his mouth in defiance. I would push it back in with my finger and would just stick it right back out. He was constantly gagging, choking and spitting because of the hair falling on his tongue but refused to close his mouth. I was constantly trying to wipe hair off of his tongue with a towel as an avalanche of hair continued to cascade down his face onto his tongue.

This is just one example of how a schedule change can affect the attitude of a special needs child. I have many more I could share but I think I might save those for a later date. Though sometimes our “typical” children have problems with schedules change, special needs children often severely struggle with such changes and parents are helpless in making things better in some cases. The best way I have found to handle such situation is to not get mad and be as patient as possible. As a parent, our natural response is to simply demand correct behavior and from our typical children this might work but for a special needs child, it might only exasperate the situation. A calming demeanor is more effective. Try to make them laugh if you can or offer them a reward, like a sucker or piece of candy. Try to keep a constant schedule whenever possible and when you are unable try to communicate the change if possible. Allow them to carry a toy or other comforting object. Maybe adjust your plans if you think they might cause a problem. The key is to remove the anxiety they are feeling and hopefully things will calm down.


2 thoughts on “Typical vs. Special – How Schedule Changes Affect My Children Differently

  1. Hello Eric! I stumbled across your blog while reading a post on another blog about churchgoing for families with children who have special needs, and I love your insightful, engaging, and well-written posts! I too am a (relatively new) North Carolinian, and I am an occupational therapy student just down the road from you at UNC Chapel Hill.
    I spend a lot of time online reading the stories and accounts of parents and people with disabilities, and your voice is one of the ones that stood out. I appreciate your writings here, and I’m excited to follow your and your family’s story!


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