Corrigan has always preferred structure and routine but has never been so rigid that the slightest variation in his preferred structures and routines would send him into a meltdown. That was then….
At church on Sunday, he walked in confidently but was shaken when he made it to his classroom and could not find a specific puzzle that he remembered was on the shelf. From the moment we stepped in the room, he asked for the puzzle, using his words as best as he was able, and also by guiding me to the puzzle shelf and touching the puzzles that were available. I knew what he wanted, I gently told him it was not there, and redirected him several times to other activities that he normally enjoys. Nothing worked and we ended up sitting in the car until Daddy and Connor came out from the morning sermon. There are no church walls soundproofed enough for one of Corrigan’s meltdowns.
I chalked Sunday morning up to the fact that he had been awake since 4am and also that he is still not comfortable with the Sunday school experience and the numbers puzzle he wanted was something that made him feel “safe.”
This morning I was nearly 30 minutes early for pickup at his Preschool and for the first time the entire school year, there was an open parking space in front of the school but at a slightly farther distance than where I usually park-which is directly in the bus lane. (Corrigan is picked up at 11:30 am-there are no buses during that time frame)
Long story short, when Corrigan and I walked out to the car, I noticed he was looking for our car in its usual location and I gently steered him off of the curb to make the ten (or less) steps across the lane to the spot I was parked in. He immediately tensed and started to pull back. His resistance eased after a second and we walked towards the car. However, when we reached the passenger side, and I opened the door, Corrigan flipped out.
“This is our car, sweetheart! See you car seat? There’s your number five! Let’s go get some french fries!” I was chirping all the while Corrigan was making such a fuss you would have thought I was trying to kidnap him. If he knew the phrase, and the context, he would have been screaming “Help me! Help me!”
As I lifted him into his seat, he refused to bend at his waist easily, was kicking and crying and smacked at my hands as I tried to buckle him in. He was genuinely freaked out. I closed the door, took a deep breath and walked around to the driver’s side and when I got into the car, he was still crying, though not as hard, but was obviously still distressed.
I know I missed a huge learning opportunity here but it was so unexpected, and he has never acted out so violently at a routine change before, I just wanted to get him safely buckled in and headed home. He was settled down before we left the school property and turned onto the street.
So what do I do? Do I continue doing things in specific ways that Corrigan is familiar with and that bring him comfort, knowing his anxiety and sensory issues, trying hard not to variate from the “norm” or do I do him more favors by mixing things up, because as my friend M.A. said, “Life throws curve balls at you” and he needs to learn to be flexible? Why are his stressors so random? Or are they only now starting to rear their ugly head and this is only the start? If he is developmentally two years behind, and if I am working with him from the angle of parenting a two-year old, is this normal stuff for that age? Or does this fall under sensory processing issues?
I did pick up on his stress at the curb. I did give him time to process the change (though admittedly not enough) and I used simple words to explain (and also used gestures to point to our car) that the car was in a new spot. I thought I kept a calm tone to my voice and I tried redirecting his fear by showing him the things in the backseat that he would recognize as his, but I know that I could have handled it better. I really think my biggest mistake was rushing him through his meltdown when it was clear this was something more important to him than dropping a crayon.
In a week, Corrigan is finished with his first regular year of PreSchool but then starts an extended program two weeks later. It will be in a new location, with new teachers and aides, more days a week, and his school days will also be two hours longer. Is he ready for such a big change? He can’t express his emotions in even, rational ways quite yet, but I am sure it will all be terrifying. How can I help him adapt?