Change is difficult for all of us. Even if it's something we're excited about, like starting a new job or moving to a new community, change is frequently accompanied by a little anxiety because we don't know what to expect. For a child with special needs, it can be even tougher and often times that stress manifests as negative behavior.
I recently read that individuals with Down syndrome have a much easier time communicating requests and happy emotions. However, it's not uncommon for individuals with Down syndrome to struggle to articulate discomfort or negative emotion. This certainly applies to Josie. She has no trouble demonstrating that she's excited about something. She requests songs, snacks, and toys with ease. However, when she gets upset, I feel like I'm trapped in an impossible guessing game and with each tear she sheds, the collective frustration increases as I blindly troubleshoot a solution to a problem that she can't always explain.
Sometimes instead of getting emotional, Josie will rev up her attitude and accost me with stubborn refusals every step of the way. And while it's easy to chalk it up to her extra chromosome making her extra stubborn, we've been in behavioral therapy long enough to learn that behavior is communication. Josie's negative behavior is often fueled by a desire to avoid something. And if it's something NEW, I can almost guarantee that it will be met with refusals because Josie likes familiarity and she dislikes change.
People with Down syndrome often rely on structure and routines to make them comfortable in a world that often moves faster than their cognitive abilities allow them to easily process. As discussed in the previous post, sticking to a schedule and preparing Josie visual aids to illustrate impending changes to the schedule help her to adapt. When Josie is prepared and familiar with what is going to happen, oppositional behaviors are less likely to occur.
When we're preparing for major life events like moving, surgery, or starting school, I will make a social story so we can read it and look at pictures multiple times to help Josie become familiar and comfortable with the change before it occurs. That's exactly what I did to prepare Josie for kindergarten. I took my camera to school orientation night and I took pictures of her classroom and teacher so that she would have visuals to accompany her story.
One of the biggest benefits of a social story is the opportunity to provide a small sense of familiarity prior to embarking upon something new. The idea is to remove a little bit of the anxiety and hopefully, encourage a more receptive attitude.
The first few days of kindergarten were difficult for Josie. At one point, her para told me that Josie had been asking to go home and "cuddle with mom." It broke my heart. But, as I could have predicted, with each passing day, Josie's disposition improves. She does better when she knows what to expect. She thrives on structure and routine. Fortunately, she has an awesome teacher and support team who provide just what she needs. She's brought home worksheets where she practices writing her numbers every day. By the third of fourth day, her aide told me she got out the pencil and got right down to business writing those numbers. And in addition to her attitude improving with familiarity, so has her performance.
The experience has reiterated for me that providing a little extra preparation and with a little more repetition/familiarity, our kids with special needs will have the tools they need to achieve their greatest potential.