|Being the first one in line can have its benefits. Ben got to take part in opening the Disney store since we were the first ones there.|
Waiting for a turn
For most of us, these things can cause feelings ranging from mild irritation to downright annoyance and frustration. However, for my son Ben, the items listed above cause him major struggles every day.
Being patient has always been especially challenging for Ben. Now, I know that all young children struggle with patience. Waiting is hard to everyone, especially in a society that has become accustomed to instant gratification. However, those on the autism spectrum have to contend with additional layers of challenge. Autistic individuals tend to hyper-focus on an object of interest and also have a tendency to perseverate (talk or think about something over and over and over).
The more Ben anticipates or wants something, the harder it is for him to wait, and the louder and more persistently he demands his desired object/event.
Exhibit A: Ben loves going to OT, but it’s across town and unfortunately we sometimes run into traffic on the way. As we get closer to the gym, as he calls it, if we run into a line of cars or are stopped at a red light, he’ll start yelling at the vehicles. “You’ve just crossed the line!” he’ll shout at them. Sometimes he’ll start pushing into the seat in front of him to try to physically move the car forward. No matter how many times we’ve discussed being patient, taking deep breaths, he still works himself into these states on an all-too-frequent basis. Thankfully, some days the traffic doesn’t faze him at all. But other days, particularly if he’s feeling extra tired or if the wind isn't blowing the right way, traffic becomes the stuff of nightmares.
Exhibit B: Waiting for a coveted prize or possession is very, very hard for Ben. One shining example of this happened this past Saturday. Ben’s soccer team played in their final “championship” game. I use the world championship loosely because they played the exact team that they have played all season on the exact same field. Even so, Ben knew this game was special. This is his second soccer season, and he knew that after the game he would be getting a trophy. Now I know that children should enjoy playing sports for the love of the game and not be so materialistic. I know that too many extrinsic rewards aren’t good, as we should teach intrinsic motivation. But, Ben has been talking about that soccer trophy ever since soccer began. After each game, he would count how many games were left until he would get his trophy. After each game, he would tell us how hard he played, and how well he listened to coach, all in the name of earning that trophy. So, this Saturday, when the game finally ended, Ben made a direct beeline for the trophy table and stood as closely as he could to the gleaming plastic soccer balls on pedestals. To Ben’s credit, he did not grab the nearest trophy off the table (as he did last season) but held his outstretched hand in front of them, fingers hovering in the air while his coach spoke to the parents about the season. Then, coach called each player up one by one, starting with the player farthest from Ben. When Ben realized his name was not the first called, he let out a loud, exasperated shriek that got more and more frenzied with each passing player’s name. Finally, the head lady whispered to coach to go ahead and give Ben his trophy, to which Ben let out a loud, jubilant shriek of joy, victoriously pumping the air and clutching the trophy with pure rapture.
I want my son to learn patience. I know it is a life skill, but I also recognize that, as with so many things in life, there is a learning progression. I can’t snap Ben into a sudden zen-like state where he arrives at a place of patience overnight. It is a process that takes time and repeated exposures to trying situations. We try to teach Ben techniques to help make the waiting process more visual and concrete for him. For example, we count down the days to anticipated events like flying to Indiana or Christmas with countdown chains. Every morning he gets to cut one piece of the chain until the day arrives. This time we haven’t even needed the chain as we prepare for our Thanksgiving trip to Indiana. To help Ben handle waiting for a big event like getting the soccer trophy, we tell very specific social stories so he knows exactly what will happen. Before the trophy ceremony, I took him aside and explained that first, coach would talk and everyone would listen quietly. Then, coach would call each player’s name, and when he called Ben’s name, he would get to come up and get the trophy. I’ve found that social stories don’t completely resolve Ben’s impatience, but they do make the waiting tolerable because he knows exactly what to expect.
Another thing that Ben has a hard time waiting for is a toy that he really, really wants. Going to Target or Toys R Us used to be nearly impossible, because if Ben saw an item he wanted and he couldn’t have it, a meltdown was pretty much a given. He simply did not understand the concept of waiting for that gratification. To help with this, we introduced the concept of a wish list. If Ben saw something he really, really wanted, we would take a picture of it and add it to his wish list. We’d put the pictures on the refrigerator, and as he’d acquire the items at a later time, he could check the item off his wish list. We have Christmas videos where Ben opens a present and immediately runs to the refrigerator, pen in hand, to check the item off the wish list before proceeding to open the next present. Now that he’s older, he barely uses his wish list anymore because he doesn’t need that intervention. Instead he has an allowance for feeding the dogs and doing chores, and he’s learning to save his money towards buying the things he wants.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t always go exactly as planned. There are traffic jams on the interstate and rainy days that cause soccer games to be cancelled. There are Christmases and birthdays with presents from relatives that are not exactly what was on that wish list. As hard as these moments can be to live through, they are necessary also, because they provide an opportunity to practice flexibility.
To a casual observer who is witnessing these behaviors in public, it is easy to label the child as a “spoiled brat.” Sadly, not everyone in society gets it. There are some that are quick to judge without fully understanding the situation.
I read a story recently about a man standing in line at McDonalds in front of a little boy and his mother. While the little boy waited, he repeated over and over to his mom that he wanted an apple pie. This verbal perseveration on this object of intense desire (the coveted apple pie) coupled with some other behaviors indicated that this child could very likely be on the autism spectrum. Sadly, when it was the man’s turn to order, he bought every single apple pie and then promptly threw them all in the trash, saying that little boy needed to learn a lesson and that spoiled brats don’t always get what they want, especially brats that drive everyone crazy.
Another example is of a female blogger who goes by the name of Smockity Frocks. Smockity wrote a story on her blog page about a little girl and her grandmother who were waiting for their turn to use the computer at the local library while Smockity’s little girl had her computer time. Smockity mockingly described how the little girl repeatedly asked her grandmother how much longer until her turn on the computer. The grandmother soothed the little girl, telling her, “Not much longer, sweetie.” In her blog post, Smockity mocked the girl’s hand flaps, saying she looked like a little bird ready to take flight and clearly missing the signs of a child on the spectrum. Smockity went on to praise her own self-restraint at not going off on this grandmother for praising the little girl for being patient, which in Smockity’s mind, she clearly wasn’t.
Sadly, many people are quick to judge the behaviors that they see in other people’s children without understanding the entire situation. Patience is a hard skill for all children to learn, but it’s especially challenging for those on the spectrum. So, if you see a child out in the world who’s grabbing for that soccer trophy or repeatedly asking for that apple pie, before assuming the child is spoiled and hasn’t been taught proper manners, pause for a moment before passing judgment. A little kindness and self-restraint goes a long way.