When you ask people what they love about life in the Hudson Valley region, the typical response is: “the four seasons!” Having moved here to be close to our son Owen, who is now a full-time resident at Anderson Center for Autism, I’d say that answer is pretty spot-on. For most.
Every season is truly special for the vast majority of people who live here. Spring is a celebration all over the Northeast, when people come out of hibernation to reconnect with neighbors and the quiet little villages around us come to life. Summer is full of nourishment: from farm-fresh produce to family festivals, every day brings an opportunity to create memories. The foliage of autumn in a valley where the Catskills meet the Hudson River provides the perfect setting for hiking, biking, or a brisk walk. And the cold winter temperatures carry the perfect ambience for holiday gatherings and comfort food. There’s something very unique about each season – and those of us who live here tend to feel connected to all four, for pretty universal reasons.
But for someone like Owen and most people on the autism spectrum, there’s a different kind of universal truth: change can be really, really difficult. The shift in routine and activities that come with a turn of the calendar from one month to another – not to mention clocks changing for the start and end of Daylight Savings – is especially hard. People with autism, which presents with communication and sensory processing challenges, tend to thrive when life is more structured, expectations are clear, and they can stick to that which is comfortable.
So just imagine for a moment what it’s like to be my son Owen. A change of seasons means many changes. For him, the change in what he needs to wear might be the most painful. Owen can be very rigid in this regard. Admittedly, I love his crazy cat t-shirts and donut socks, and there’s something to be said for the smile these items bring to his face and to all of us who know that these are his go-to items. But let’s face it: wearing shorts in a blizzard is not a good idea. Nor are the flip-flops he insists on wearing regardless of the wind chill factor dipping to a record low. Couple his desire to wear summer attire during January’s cold fronts with the challenge of putting must-have mittens on someone who simply doesn’t like the feel of fabric on his hands, and it can make the magic of a winter festival less than magical.
However, as any Mom or Dad of a child with autism knows, and as his team at Anderson Center for Autism is well-aware, creativity – and a patient, gentle approach to change – are cornerstones of successful caregiving. You have to pull out all the stops to ensure the well-being of any child, and that’s what we’ve learned to do.
Let’s start with creativity. Most people pack their winter clothes away for spring and summer, and likewise do the same for fall and winter. As Mom to a young man with autism, I have to be very strategic about this ritual. I try to hide Owen’s clothes when he is not looking. I need to put away his favorite pieces of apparel, not appropriate for our Hudson Valley winters, and do the same in the warmer months – all without him taking notice. It’s not easy. Believe me, Owen is always watching–even when we don’t know it!
However, it’s all balanced with ensuring that he has the sense of self needed to endure the tough changes of season. I want him to feel like himself – always. And so does his staff. So we make it happen in smaller ways. We approach change with patience and a collective gentle spirit, giving him some continuity in context of the broader transition to make it a little easier.
For example, he still has access to his cat shirts and donut socks. After all, he wouldn’t be Owen without his signature style. I cherish and honor that. And since he doesn’t love hats, we’ve learned to try to buy ones that somehow align with Owen’s favorite things: for example, he loves his Scooby Doo hat. And of course, if he loves something, we know to get more than one. Especially those hats, mittens, gloves – the winter essentials for every wardrobe; those have a tendency to get lost just as easily as all the socks we lose in the washing machine!
As far as Daylight Savings goes, I’ve learned to help him work slowly through that change as well. We begin changing the clock back two weeks early, in five-minute increments. Taking this change in smaller steps leading up to it makes it so much easier.
Working through these transitions is a team effort of course. We work closely with his team at Anderson, who have known him since he started there at age 13. Now that he’s nineteen years old, we’ve all been through many seasons with Owen. While there are still challenges, he’s becoming so much more agreeable to so many new things. By working together to help him gradually cope with changes like moving into different seasons, I think he feels honored and loved in a way that makes him more open to other changes in his life as well.
Feeling honored and loved through every season of life. Hmm. Isn’t that what we ALL need to get through that which pulls us out of our comfort zones?