One thing you learn very, very quickly as a parent of a child with autism is that routines are essential for getting through the day. If autistic children have any similarities at all — which they do, though I’m concentrating on just one here — it’s that they crave regularity in their day. Structure. Without it, they find it completely impossible to function and, by extension, this means parents are unable to function, as well.
My son has many routines. When he gets up. When he goes to bed. When he takes his pills in the morning. When he takes his pills at night. When he has breakfast and what he has for breakfast. All of these things. And at school his day is rigidly defined, with every activity broken down into component parts, like a checklist, that he must meet in order to navigate his time there. It may seem almost draconian to those on the outside, this utter commitment to making every day as much like the days that came before, but it’s what must be done.
Autistic kids cut loose of their moorings are unable to articulate their discomfort. This negative energy builds and builds until finally it manifests itself as a full-on meltdown. The uneducated would call it a tantrum, but it’s far more intense and uncontrolled than that. A meltdown involves a total shutdown of reasonable faculties and sometimes the only way to stop it from raging on and on is to physically restrain the child until the fury has passed. It is decidedly unpleasant, and there’s not a parent of an autistic child anywhere who has not had the misfortune at least once of dealing with a meltdown in a public setting.
I bring all of this up because my son’s routine is about to be seriously disrupted for five whole days. To say I’m not looking forward to it is something of an understatement.
Once a year my wife goes to a professional convention and is gone a few days. Last year the convention was in Las Vegas and this year it’s in New Orleans. My son and I always stay home though next year, when the convention is back in Vegas, we’re going to accompany my wife to her destination and see all the sights.
Usually my son doesn’t get too up in arms about the trip until my wife is actually gone and suddenly all the things he takes for granted stop happening. Now I’m the one who puts him to bed and wakes him up, who gives him his medicine, who cuts up his pancakes. I see him off to the bus alone. I prepare his lunches. I pick him up at the end of his day. Granted, some of this stuff I do for him already, but the point is that Mom is an essential ingredient in his routine.
This year my son started to get squirrelly about two weeks out, insisting with greater and greater intensity that he be allowed to go with my wife to New Orleans. This reached a peak yesterday and at one point we were actually looking at flights to see if we could find a reasonably priced one. No go.
Just when I thought we were going to have a fully fledged meltdown on our hands when it was time to say good-bye at the bus stop this morning, Nemo surprised us and bid farewell without any tears or reluctance. This doesn’t mean problems won’t arise as the week goes on, but the crisis we expected did not come to pass.
All my son has to do is make it through Friday afternoon and he’ll be reunited with his mother again. I’ll do my best to make him feel as normal as possible over the intervening period. With luck, he’ll remain stable and this will be just the slightest of bumps in the road.