Teaching an autistic child how to handle interruptions is not easy. We set-up distraction-free environments, usually the same setting every time, for them to work uninterrupted. We work so hard to build them up to working for ten minutes at a sustained task, only to find ourselves trapped.
Trapped? If skipping an aisle causes a meltdown, you have been trapped. If you cannot change channels until the very last credit, you have been trapped. Being trapped means continuing with a memorized script until complete or reading a book until the very end.
Michelle Garcia Winner illustrates how being trapped looks in a social situation,
Sue was a beautiful middle school girl who had worked with me in an individual and group session to help her develop social thinking and related skills . . . One day in our group session with other middle school girls, all of the girls were told that the goal for the day was to “ask questions of other girls about their life” . . . Sue raised her hand then said, “I had to audition in the school play. I had to learn 50 lines” and then she recited many of the 50 lines in her audition. Upon retelling of her audition she added, “I even get to sing in the school play” and then she started to sing.
Sometimes, we set our children up for this by following common wisdom out there about getting our kids on a strict schedule because they crave structure. Because the world seems so unfathomable to them, we do them a favor by creating order they can predict. Because many are talented in spotting patterns, that gift can turn into a curse when it begins to tie us up in a straight jacket. On the one hand, they must learn be flexible enough to stop an activity midstream without melting down to survive in this chaotic world. On the other hand, if they are too flexible about loose ends, they might not finish anything.
My consultant asked me to document how Pamela handles interruptions. Fortunately, she has had years of practicing watching me! David calls me from school and asks me to bring an important paper he forgot. The guy staining the floor of our porch knocks on the door (causing the dogs to raise a ruckus) to let me know he must have caught a stomach flu and is going home for the day. Fedex delivers a package for me to sign and then Pamela dryly observes, "It's a female one," because she has never seen a woman doing that job. For years, she has seen me go with the flow and fit what we can into a day and carry forward what we cannot manage without becoming unglued.
How Pamela Handles Interruptions
When interruptions stop us while working together, I can always guide Pamela to get back track. Because her attention skills are very strong, she follows through all by herself even when doing a task alone. I set up a camera while Pamela was entering data on the computer. She was entering measurements in a spreadsheet to convert them to the scaled inches we were using to draw a plan of our backyard for geography. Steve inadvertently interrupted her by getting the mail. After she satisfied her curiosity, she got back to work. Then I intentionally distracted her by asking her to chose a bow for her sewing project and reading the church newsletter in her presence. She always went back to her numbers.
Then something funny happened while she was drawing a wasp nest for nature study. Pamela took a short break and checked my email (I guess mine is more interesting than hers) like all good multi-taskers. Fifty seconds later, Pamela turned back to drawing.
Reviewing the Video Together
We watched the video together because I wanted to spotlight the idea of interruptions and getting back to work. Pamela was in a playful mood and the interruptions made her crack up. She was quite pleased when she saw herself get back on track. She laughed the hardest when she caught herself sneaking onto the Internet. Since she is so good at reorienting her attention, I kept it light and playful because she was simply doing what everyone does in this world of technological distractions!