Kids With ASD can react strongly to changes in their routines or environments. Even changing the location of furniture they don’t even use can create screaming and aggression. Why? Often they use their external concept of home and environment to provide internal consistency, structure, and spatial comprehension. We all do, in reality. Ask anyone who travels for business how nice it is to come home and wake up knowing where things are without searching for them. It is not just exhaustion from travel, but the constant reorientation to new places and looking for needed things that make business travel hard. Kids with ASD just depend on the familiarity of their external world and their routines much more. When faced with disruption, they don’t have a wider range of coping skills to fall back on. They can fall into chaos.
The Fast Food Rule, Dr. Harvey Karp’s fabulous strategy for communicating with agitated toddlers, works well with kids whose ASD issues make them rigid and upset when small changes occur. The technique is to use simple statements with slightly exaggerated emotional tone and gestures to first express what you think the child is thinking, wait for a sign of lower agitation, and then provide an explanation, alternative, or both.
Toddlers are usually not good at reading subtle language and other cues. They need explicit interaction that says “I understand why you are upset. I really do. Here is what is happening, and here is what we can do.” All upset toddlers benefit from the Fast Food Rule. Toddlers with ASD need this kind of support throughout the day, every day. Their world is so much harder for them to understand and handle without stress.
I worked with a family this week, and saw what can happen when an adult fails to communicate effectively. A 2.5 year old’s trike was brought into the kitchen entry hall instead of being left in the mudroom. It wasn’t blocking anything. It just was not where it is usually stored. They were doing some repairs later that day in the mudroom, so it had to be moved. He went ballistic.
Screaming, hanging on it but not trying to ride it, absolutely beside himself that it was out of place. The mom tried to tell him that they would “go to the park later”, thinking that he wanted to use it. This was not the case, as he wasn’t mounting it or doing anything that would suggest he was interesting in riding it at the moment. He screamed louder when she told him that “everything was OK”. It was not OK to him! She turned on the TV briefly, and then took out the tablet. That distracted him and he quieted down. This ended the drama but it didn’t solve the problem. In fact, she has been trying to limit screen time because he prefers to use these devices rather than engage in social/communication/ fine motor play. Now she would have to decide when to announce that his turn was over, face that complaint, and the trike was still sitting in the hallway instead of the mudroom.
If she had used the Fast Food Rule, she could have had a chance to explain and support him in accepting that the trike was there until work was done in the mudroom. Is this a guarantee that he’d be perfectly calm? Not at all. But it would have been an opportunity to use language and emotional connection to develop self-calming, methods of communication that he needs for success in school, at home, well, everywhere. It would have acknowledged his feelings and his perspective while helping him to accept a change in the routine/environment.
If you have tried the Fast Food Rule with your Toddler, please write a comment and share your success or your struggle!