Using rigidity to my advantage

In late 2008, when SB was 3, he became very good at jigsaw puzzles.  He wanted to do them all the time.  My husband and I were thrilled!  No, we were BEYOND thrilled!  For years, he had spent most of his free time stimming.  Now he wanted to do puzzles every day.  Hooray!  He actually WANTED to do something normal!  Since he didn’t enjoy very many normal activities at this age, I encouraged puzzles with gusto, and bought him dozens of 24-piece puzzles.  About 2 months later, his enthusiasm for puzzles faded, and he didn’t want to do them anymore.  He gradually slipped back into some of his favorite stims more frequently.  I was incredibly disappointed.  I tried new puzzles, harder puzzles, and even easier puzzles, but with no luck.  The activity was definitely fading.

About a year later, I started to teach SB how to play Candy Land.   I used the Activity Time procedure that I outlined in a previous post called, “I’m not an ABA therapist…but I play one on TV.”  Learning how to play a board game was really hard for him, because at first, he just did not understand how to move the man along the path.  I had to start with the most basic of steps and simplify Candy Land as much as possible.  I began by ONLY using the cards with one color square.  I removed from the game all of the cards with two color squares AND all of the cards with candy items on them.  If you normally think Candy Land is boring, try playing it THIS way!  Ugh!!!!  It took a while, but he finally began to understand the concept of how to move the man along the path, so I added the other cards back in.  Once we were using all of the Candy Land cards and playing a game successfully, I moved on to Chutes and Ladders.  Since the “move the man along the path” concept was the same, and he has always loved numbers, he caught on to this game much more easily.  Hi-Ho Cherry-O was next.  By the spring of 2010, he wanted to play board games all of the time.  Again, we were thrilled!  Not only was he filling his free time with a normal activity, but he was doing it WITH another person!  Here was the first activity that he enjoyed that he could actually do with another child.  Maybe we could finally have play dates!  But again, the excitement of board games faded after a few months, and he stopped wanting to play them. 

I finally realized how to keep these things, and other things, in SB’s rotation all of the time.  I had to actually schedule them into his day using his picture schedule.  Back when he was 3, I had built him a picture schedule that hung on the wall in our kitchen.  The original reason I created it was that he did not seem to understand the difference between a weekday and a weekend.  Some Saturdays he would cry when I told him he was not going to preschool.  Sometimes on weekdays he would cry when I told him he WAS going to preschool.  He certainly did not understand the words “yesterday,” “today,” or “tomorrow.”  Every morning started with a frustrating tantrum of some sort, because the day never seemed to hold what he thought it was going to.  Since he couldn’t read yet, his schedule could not contain words, so it had to be made entirely of pictures.  I used “PECS,” which stands for Picture Exchange Communication System.  This communication system was developed for children who are nonverbal or with limited verbal skills, and is used in special education classrooms all over the country.  I found hundreds of picture cards that were easy to print for free at  I also used photographs of people he was going to see, like his daycare provider or therapist.  And sometimes, if I couldn’t find the right picture card to use, I drew one of my own.  Thankfully, he was not critical of my lousy drawing skills!  A typical day for him looked like this:

When I first introduced the picture schedule, it contained only one day at a time, because that’s all the information he could handle.  We talked through it each morning and each evening.  When I finally felt that he understood what all the pictures meant, I put up 3 days at a time, like this:

Every morning and every evening we looked at the schedule together and discussed yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  After several months, when I finally felt like he understood all of that, I began to put up a whole week at a time.  That looked like this:

By 2009, SB was a pro at following his picture schedule.  He understood the days of the week, he understood yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and he also understood when something unusual or different was going to happen in his week.  This gave him the opportunity to look forward to future events, such as birthday parties or visits with relatives.  Before he began using this picture schedule, there was no way he was able to understand something like, “Grammy and Grandpa are coming to visit on Saturday!”  The schedule also helped me to prepare him for things that he was not going to like at all, such as doctor appointments.  SB had SEVERE anxiety about going to the doctor, and I always dreaded taking him because I knew the day would be full of crying, fits, and frustration.  (Doctor anxiety is a post for another day.)  When he knew about a doctor visit several days in advance, it seemed to ease his anxiety a little bit, at least until we got there and the nurses began touching him.  He checked his picture schedule every day, and seemed to love knowing what was coming up in his week.  Don’t we all like to know what to expect in our week?

But back to the point of this essay.  One day sometime in 2010, I thought about how sad I was that SB had stopped playing board games.  I couldn’t seem to interest him in any games, not even the full-of-numbers Chutes and Ladders that had been his favorite thing to do for months.  Any suggestion by me to play a board game was met with screaming and defiance.  Then I had an idea – would he play a board game with me if his picture schedule told him to?  After “School,” “Home,” and “Dinner,” if the schedule said to play a game, would he do it, simply because it was on the schedule?  I decided to find out.  I drew a picture card with a game spinner on it, and called it “Family Game Night.”  I placed the card on Thursday after “Dinner.”  I didn’t ask him if he wanted to play a game, I just matter-of-factly told him that it was Family Game Night, and that we were all going to play a game together.  Then I instructed him to go choose a game, expecting a full-out tantrum.  He ran into the living room, went straight to the shelves where we keep the games, and returned with the Chutes and Ladders box. 

SCORE!  It worked!  I wish I could remember who won the game that night, but I don’t.

Every Thursday became Family Game Night.  Soon after that, every Friday night became “Puzzle Night.”  I drew a picture of a puzzle piece on a blank card and put it on the schedule.  Even though the card looks ridiculous because I can’t draw at all, he actually began doing jigsaw puzzles again, if only once a week.  I was proud of my idea and how it was working to keep these positive activities in my son’s rotation even after he seemed to get bored of them.  My mind started to form more evil plans.  What else could I get SB to do?

Both of my boys HATE art projects.  Crayons, markers, glue, scissors, stickers, glitter, paint, etc, etc, etc.  They despise it all.  Being somewhat of a girly girl, I find this very disappointing.  I like art projects!  I remember coloring for hours with my mom when I was a little girl, and cutting out magazine pictures and gluing them to paper.  But, alas, coloring and cutting with my children was just not meant to be.  Or was it?  One day I placed an “Art” card on the schedule on Saturday morning.  SB noticed it on Monday, and I could tell he was suspicious.  He just stared at the card for several minutes.  “Saturday we are going to do art,” I told him.  “What art?” he asked.  “We are going to finger paint,” I said.  “How many minutes?” he asked.  I told him ten minutes.  He gave me a dirty look that said, “I don’t trust you,” but didn’t ask any more questions about it. 

By the time Saturday morning rolled around, SB was ready and willing to do an art project.  I couldn’t believe it!  Giving him several days to think about it and prepare for it really worked!  At this point, AB was so little that he wanted to do whatever his big brother was doing, so it wasn’t hard to convince him to participate, too.  Both boys sat at the table, wearing some of my old college marching band T-shirts as paint smocks.  (I think at least one of the T-shirts had some profanity on it.  Don’t judge me.)  I gave them big pieces of paper and squirted a blob of paint onto the paper.  AB dug right in and got himself good and messy in the blink of an eye.  SB was more tentative, using just one finger at first, not wanting to get dirty.  But with a little encouragement, he soon had paint all over the paper.  “Was that 10 minutes?” he asked.  I hadn’t even been watching the clock, but I figured it was close enough.  I let him get down and wash his hands.  It may have only been 10 minutes (or even less) but he had done an art project with me without a fight or a tantrum.  That was a success in my book.

So the Burts family plays a board game (or now sometimes a Wii game) every Thursday, does jigsaw puzzles every Friday, and does an art project every Saturday morning.  (Well, every Saturday that I have planned something and get up in time to get it ready.)  Maybe we’re not as spontaneous as other families, but having family traditions is kind of nice.  And occasionally, when we’re feeling a little crazy here at the Burts house, we just might play Chutes and Ladders when it’s NOT Thursday!

2 thoughts on “Using rigidity to my advantage

  1. Mindy, as I’ve been following your posts (not out of any autism knowledge, but just out of the fun of remembering knowing YOU as a younger child), I have said to myself, several times, “Wow, I’m just not sure if I could do that.” Now I’m convinced – that is some really creative thinking/parenting you’ve got going. Awesome job!

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