What happens when you have to change plans mid stream? Changing course midway for someone with autism isn’t really a thing. You have to create a new plan for the unexpected.
We showed up at Special Olympics Saturday morning ready to play team skills basketball. It was raining and rain is not sensory friendly. So, getting there was a challenge. Apparently, it was too much of a challenge for several of the other team members and we had to forfeit our game.
I’m always interested in how flexible Henry might be, so I started just by letting him know: The team isn’t coming. We’re not going to be able to play today.
His face fell. Uh Oh. It meant more to him that I thought it did. He sat down in the EMT’s fold-out chair and said, “I’m not going.” Meltdown alert.
It was time to be find a version of flexible that avoids a meltdown. I could imagine an almost 6 foot, 200-something pound 22-year-old laying on the floor sobbing or maybe grounding himself in the chair and not moving for hours.
I’m not the most flexible person in the world. I like a plan. I like my plan even better. I’ve learned that to be flexible, it helps to envision a new plan. It’s when I get attached to the things of the old plan and my emotional energy rises, tinged with panic, that Henry reads it and gets REALLY nervous.
So step one of the new plan — deep breath for me.
Step two of the new plan — not too many options. If I offer a bunch of things that we could do, that’s just as overwhelming. Be decisive.
Step three of the new plan — acknowledge where we are at. We have been coming to this exact gym on some Saturday morning in December for over 10 years to play this game. “I’m disappointed,” I said. “It’s a bummer.” Giving context to the level of appropriate emotion helps everyone involved.
Step four of the new plan — do something that is satisfying. Henry’s main purpose at Special Olympics isn’t sports. While he’s improved over the years, and he’s quite tall now so making a basket does happen, he’s really there to host. Moments before the officials take over, Henry heads to the court and introduces himself, the teams, and his imaginary band, band leader, and announcer. The usual.
To satisfy our purpose there I asked one of the high school volunteers if he could shoot some baskets. He did. Then I told him if he wanted to cheer on the crowd, now was the time. He took to the floor and greeted the crowd, albeit more subdued than usual.
Final step — offer a treat attached to the moving on step. I asked him if he was ready to go to Chik-fil-a and then to Mimi’s house. Food usually works. He said yes, managed to make it to the car under an umbrella without incident, put his seat belt on and proclaimed, “Special Olympics. I won!”
Yes, you won!