Nirav almost always joins us on family hikes. Up and down the windy California coastline or deep inside massive redwood forests. He enjoys the exercise, the outdoors, and our company. Putting one foot in front of the other while the wind sings in his hair, echoing the cadence of his sister’s voice. There is no pressure to participate, so he ambles long, at peace with everything. Even if he doesn’t say a word, we know he’s watching, listening, and living every part.
And he walks with reason. Sometimes he’s thrilled about a railroad fact or leveling up on Mario. Other times he paces, dispelling nervous energy — often at the tail end of an anxiety attack. But often, he walks because he processes thoughts and ideas better when on the move.
Some of us doodle or twirl our hair or hum when we’re working. Nirav walks. It’s his thing.
His school hosts a fundraiser every year — a walkathon held in early November when the air is still warm and the days are long. No matter how he feels about everything else, Nirav always shows up to walk. We huddle before at home, discussing how many laps we think he might try. I say 100 — he giggles and responds with a million. We put on our hats, slap on some sunscreen, and walk on the school field. The first year he walked 7 laps. The next, he managed 10. And at the last walkathon, he aimed for 30 and stopped at that. He could have walked a few more, but his brain had agreed on 30, so 30 it was going to be.
Most autistics build their lives around rules, patterns, and intent. If they decide on a goal, they make a plan, roll up their sleeves, and achieve. Their focus can be magnificent when in the groove — their worlds narrowed down to THE TASK at hand. External sounds and movements fade away as they work with an almost religious zeal.
And that is why transitions can be jarring.
Now imagine you are eating the best sandwich of your life: all the fixings – extra mayo, gooey cheese, and caramelized onions. The angels are singing overhead; you take another bite and lean back in ecstasy.
Then someone walks up, knocks it out of your hand, and announces perkily, “It’s time to practice your French verbs!” Wouldn’t you want to throw a fit? Scream, beg, negotiate? Demand to take another bite for the love of God?
That’s almost exactly how autistics feel when interrupted. Doesn’t matter if they were enjoying a hobby or doing some homework. If they’d planned to start and finish something, any disruption is challenging.
So how can we help them with all the inevitable transitions in daily life?
Three words: Acknowledge, empathize and accommodate. Offer gentle reminders before transitions; give them choices and the time to choose. Be compassionate if they struggle and flexible if they want to do things differently. Aim for collaboration and not control.
Failing that, it is acceptable to “give in” sometimes. Let them finish reading that book/playing that game,/ watching that video before moving on. This is not submission or surrender but deep respect for their autonomy. The French verbs can wait because that sandwich just tastes too good.
When we accord our autistic children the freedom to grow at their own pace, we build strong trust bonds. We see them as human beings, not as the sum of their abilities or assignments.
And with Nirav, over the years, we’ve learned to fine-tune our approach. On days when he has extra reserve, we push him — just a teensy bit — challenging him to step out of his comfort zone. “Hey, you want to collect flowers while we walk?” “How about we taste some of these new crackers?” “Think you can finish this page of math problems?” It is always a request, a little nudge towards changing things up. And he often surprises us by well exceeding our expectations.
This November, Nirav will be at the school walkathon. We will huddle together before and set a goal. 35 laps. Maybe 40? He decides. Then we will put on our hats, dab on sunscreen, and get to the school field.
And I will honor my beautiful boy by doing just as many laps as we agreed on.