Finding the "Just Right Challenge" by Patty

Over the years, my family has missed out on many typical childhood activities. We have never gone to an amusement park, we often decline birthday party invitations, and we rarely travel. We also often skip church parties, forgo YMCA breakfasts with Santa, and choose not to enroll our kids in many activities.

Sometimes I wonder if we should get out more. I wonder if maybe I am sheltering my kids too much or if I am not making enough effort to get out.

The reason we skip most activities is because of the sensory craziness that comes with them, and I am never sure how Danny and Charlotte will handle it. Sometimes, too, it just doesn’t seem worth all the trouble to prepare the kids and ourselves for the possible ordeal.

And, if I am being perfectly honest, sometimes I can be a bit anti-social. While I enjoy being around other people, I don't particularly care for large groups; the sensory stimulation isn't just hard on my kids, but on me as well.

We aren’t hermits; we do take the kids to social gatherings. It’s just that we are pretty choosy. Still, I have to admit, we refuse many, many invitations.

This past summer, I met a woman, Alicia Hart, an autism advocate who founded an Adventure Club in our town. This was a group for families of kids with autism who regularly met at the park to engage in science experiments, art projects and musical performances. Danny and Charlotte loved it, as did I.

To end the summer on a high note, Alicia gathered almost 100 people—kids with autism and their families—for a bowling party.

I accepted the invitation, despite my instinct to run in the opposite direction. Bowling alleys are just rife with sensory stimuli and I knew it would be a strain on all of us, not just Danny.
The party was even more chaotic than I expected, and none of us handled it spectacularly well. Danny broke down in tears no less than 5 times, which only happens when his senses are on overload. Tommy wouldn’t stay with us, and Charlotte couldn’t bear the noise. Finally, Bil suggested we leave, which for some reason, hadn’t occurred to me. I can only surmise that I was too shell-shocked to think clearly.

Later, when I mentioned the sensory struggles we experienced, Alicia said something that has had me thinking for months now: “ I know it was quite the crazy time but sometimes stepping outside your comfort zone can be a good thing! Sometimes you can't flex all those hard won clinical skills unless you jump in the deep end.”

This holiday season, we flexed those muscles more than usual, and made some interesting discoveries along the way.

We took the kids to my husband’s work party, a gathering that we most likely would have avoided in previous years. And Danny surprised us. Though he was a bit ornery, we were able to rein him in and he actually enjoyed himself. Because the party was so kid-friendly, both Danny and Charlotte did pretty well and even sat on Santa’s lap, the first time they have ever done so.

I also took the kids to see "Tangled" at the movie theater. We hadn't ventured to the theater in well over a year, when Danny got very upset at a viewing of "UP." Again, the kids did rather well at handling the noise and other sensory stimuli.

On the other hand, we refused an invitation to a Christmas Eve party at my aunt’s house. I didn’t even consider going to this party, because I know it is always extremely crowded and noisy. Add to that the fact that the party is later at night and provides few children’s activities, and we decided it wasn’t worth it.

As I pondered what Alicia said to me this summer, I worried that perhaps I was limiting my children. Was I refusing invitations out of fear or laziness? Was I underestimating my kids' abilities? After a great deal of soul searching, I have decided that this is not the case.

Though I know getting out of our comfort zones is important, it has to be done with some forethought. Accepting every single invitation is definitely not the right way to go for my family. My kids (and Bil and I) need down time, quiet time to ourselves.

While staying home all day and not socializing is not beneficial for us, neither is the other extreme: running all day long and surrounding ourselves with people and chaos.

Obviously, there needs to be a middle ground.

Writing this post, it has occurred to me that I do actually have a method for choosing when to attend and when to stay home. It's similar to a philosophy used in Sensory Integration Therapy, called "Just Right Challenge." This term was originally coined by A. Jean Ayres the pioneer of Sensory Integration Therapy, and you can learn more about it in Sensory Integration and the Child. Look Inside at AmazonBasically, therapists attempt to challenge a child and make them work hard and stretch a bit, but not so hard that the kid cannot be successful at the task. As the term implies, the goal is to achieve just the right balance.

As I analyzed how we decided which holiday activities to attend, I realized that I have unknowingly been employing the "Just Right Challenge" mentality.

When we choose not to attend a particular activity, it is usually because we are relatively confident that success is next to impossible. Parties or activities where there is little chance the kids will be able to handle the sensory overload, we tend to skip. Other activities we forgo because it's just not worth the trouble. For example, last summer when Danny wanted to go see "G-Force" at the movies, we nixed the idea. He had gotten so worked up at the movie "UP" just months before, and I was certain that "G-Force" would be much more stimulating, so we decided to wait until the movie came out on DVD. It just wasn't worth the trauma that tends to accompany the theater experience for Danny.

When we choose to attend activities it is because we feel confident that, with some adaptation and planning on our parts, the kids can succeed and have fun. It's never a guarantee that the parties will go well, but at least we know we stand a fighting chance.

It isn't easy keeping the balance, and sometimes I make unwise choices, like taking the entire family to the bowling party. Still, I suppose even then, there are lessons to be learned. And, as Alicia has taught me, the best way to learn to be social and deal with sensory issues is to get out in the world and live.

How about you? How do you choose which invitations to accept?


Alicia Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alicia Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alicia Hart said...

The infamous bowling ;) Let it live forever in your mind haha!

While I most certainly would include sensory challenges in the comment I made about that trip, I was more referring to the cognitive and social skills our kids have been working on in therapy for so long. So many of our children are incredibly rigid in their approach to life that flexing those executive functioning muscles and learning to live outside the four walls of security most of them call their bedroom, can be a good thing. I tell parents all the time that you simply can't expect life to be THAT routine, because real life isn't. But at the same time, these children THRIVE in routine and the more they have the happier they are. It's about finding a balance that allows them the security a routine brings and allowing them to try (and yes sometimes fail) at something new. Learning is a process for us all and often we get to choose the right time to flex those muscles (which incidentally is not the day when you are running late, bounced a check, or burned your dinner lol). Spontaneity has a place in the life of a child with autism and it's about building that into your life every now and then! :)

Diane said...

I can relate so well to this post. It's always been a balancing act for my family, because we want to push ourselves in order to grow, which is somewhat painful, but going too far is counterproductive and even more painful.

I'm glad you put it this way in writing: "Basically, therapists attempt to challenge a child and make them work hard and stretch a bit, but not so hard that the kid cannot be successful at the task. As the term implies, the goal is to achieve just the right balance." I think I need to print that out and put it on my fridge :) It's nice to know we're not the only ones who have to daily meet the challenge of when to push and when to back off.


Tracy said...

I am careful as to what challenges are faced with my son because I want to be sure that if a situation does slip out of hand, I can gain control of it. If I cannot, I won't do it. It isn't worth the heartache if everyone ends up unhappy and worn out.

trydefyinggravity said...

I love this because it is so important. For a while, I was just declining everything because I thought we couldn't handle it. then I had to sit back and think about who really couldn't handle it - me or my son? or me with all three kids? I'm taking a better look at what works for us, and what I can take just one kid to, etc. Thanks for all these pointers and reminders to do what works best for our family.

Sarah said...

With 2 kids on the spectrum it becomes extra challenging to find activities both can enjoy until I decided to stop trying so hard. We now travel in 2 cars to a destination in case one child is having a hardship---that way the other can continue to enjoy the activity at hand. Stepping out of one's comfort zone truly is a challenge but one worth doing. Wonderful post.

John and Allie Fields said...

I recently wrote a blog post (though not as good) revolving around the same topic. I have realized that sometimes it really is just not worth putting my kids in situations where they are miserable. Understanding the tantrum triggers is what helps me decide which events to attend and which to decline.

ShesAlwaysWrite said...

Thank you for this. You validated the way I've been evaluating activities for us, and helped beef up my courage for an upcoming kiddie bowling birthday party.