The Missing Part

My step-son, amongst a number of other conditions, is diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He finds it difficult to deal with uncertainty and change. Hence, as I sit here and type this blog we are dealing with heightened confusion arising from school being cancelled due to the snow. As other children find fun in the white stuff we must remember those who struggle with moments of significant disruption like this.

Such disruptions to routine are unavoidable. They happen every day and often when you least expect – the swimming pool is closed, the CD in the car is jumping, the house smells funny. To eradicate uncertainty is like eradicating snow – it’s impossible. As parents and teachers we can be guilty of snow-ploughing – a term used to describe clearing the path of obstacles to ensure our children have a smooth(er) journey. These acts of kindness inadvertently deny children opportunities to learn how to deal with disruption and challenge.

For several years now, a variety of therapists have suggested we use a visual timetable with my step-son. This visual aid supports children and adults to have a picture of the day ahead – it clearly lays out the activities/exercises/curricular areas in a linear order that provides confidence and, in many ways eradicates uncertainty. It works. I have seen it as a parent and in the schools that I work in. However, there seems to be a missing part that’s got lost along the way. A missing part that completely changes my understanding of visual timetables.

At a recent Speech and Language session, my step-son’s therapist spoke to us about the original concept behind the visual timetable. The inventor intended the tool to help prepare children for moments of uncertainty, through the inclusion of a ‘?’ card in the daily timetable. The potential disruption of a square of card with a question mark on it seemed odd for a tool intended to regulate and ensure stability – why would you unsettle the apple cart?

But the reason was a ‘penny-drop’ moment for me. The ‘?’ card legitimates manageable moments of uncertainty within which the child can begin to develop resilience to the unknown. Uncertainty becomes expected, even normailsed. It’s like the idea of Social Acupuncture (Mammalian Diving Reflex): a moment of discomfort that allows you to experience or see things that feels sore, wrong, or uncomfortable – but ultimately are good for you.

How often do we readily accept the most basic advantages of a tool without exploring its full capability? How often does our desire for a quick fix stop us short of embracing the ‘hard part’ of ideas where significant and sustainable change can come from? A visual timetable designed to help manage uncertainty, gets bastardised to leave uncertainty out. This serves to confirm only certainty, leaving children even less capable of dealing with uncertainty. We’ve turned an emanicpatory tool into one that constrains us, because we simplified it and didn’t read the instructions in full.

What does this mean to you? How many ‘?’ cards do you have in your day? If you have none then how do you know how you will cope in moments of uncertainty? You are probably successful in the world you have created but not the world beyond your limitations. It’s like swimming upstream, if you remain in calm waters you’ll never know how good a swimmer you are.

It would be nice to see more ‘?’ cards and less certainty in our classrooms. Participation comes from uncertainty as it calls people to action. Certainty is often defined by someone else – it is the curriculum with the life planned out of it – lets live a little.

One thought on “The Missing Part

  1. Paul, I agree! I think we try to manage our environments and schedules to minimise upset for children when we should be focusing on giving them the skills to cope with change, transitions and uncertainty. We need to gradually, with sensitivity, draw back to allow our children get accomstomed to a ‘new normal’ or an occasional variety in tasks, activities and outcomes. We need to empower them rather than protect them which ultimately will prove to be impossible.

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