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Transitioning with littles and special needs.

I’ve shared our experience with transitioning with our older children. What about younger children? What does this process of transition look like with a three-year-old? Or a five-year-old? And, even more so, what about a child who has special needs- who, perhaps, cannot articulate their feelings verbally?

Jasper was three years old when we landed in Malawi. What we did not know at the time was that he is on the autism spectrum. If I had known that, it might have helped me a lot in navigating the transition with him. Without that knowledge, we did the best we could.

Jasper’s “speaking up” looked more like massive meltdowns (up to two-plus-hours of meltdown), as well as erratic and repetitive behavior. He was an unregulated little boy plopped into the middle of an unregulated and chaotic setting. From the smells to the language to the sounds and sights, he was overstimulated and out of control. I look back on that year in Malawi, and I can only say that it was God’s grace that brought us through. Sundays were a nightmare. He had no place to go that was a safe space. He was overwhelmed, and he could not string the words or thoughts together to express how he was feeling and what he needed. His language skills were delayed which compounded the emotional strain. I’ve often compared Jasper’s behavior to that of a pinball machine. The triggering stimulus or event would be likened to pulling the lever on a pinball machine that shoots the ball out of the corner. In similar fashion, Jasper would be shot out of his corner in the morning, and he would literally bounce all over the place, directionless and erratically throughout the day.

Picture this: our house in Malawi had five doors that all led to the outside. It is common for people to open up doors and windows of their homes- and keep them open- throughout the day in order to allow the breeze to flow through the house. We did this, initially, until we realized that these open doors created enormous stress for Jasper. He would run like a person on speed, in and out of the house, out one door and in through the next, circling the house over and over again. The running didn’t calm him down or wear him out. It actually revved him up and set him into a physical and emotional tailspin. When we recognized how the open doors were creating an atmosphere of stress for him- and for us- we decided to close all the doors except one. There would be only one open door for coming and going.

It really breaks my heart when I think of how hard that transition must have been for him. I tear up when I think about it because I know I didn’t always handle myself well in those high stress moments.

I can’t go back in time and fix all the mistakes I made in helping Jasper through the transition, but I can take what I’ve learned – and am continuing to learn – and apply it in our current transition and future transitions, and hopefully spark some creativity and hope to those who are also going through something similar to this.

With younger children, we have to slow down. We have to get on pace with them and their emotional process. I’ve heard it said multiple times that moving overseas is much easier with little ones than it is with older children. Speaking from my own experience, I would say that I disagree. It is not easier, just different.

Little ones explode in behavior. They meltdown, and they wear out easily. Fatigue creates a tired and angry little tyrant. They verbally can’t tell us, “Hey, I feel uncomfortable in this situation.” Or “I am scared, and I don’t understand what is happening.” We have to interpret their emotions, feelings, and grief through the negative behaviors we observe.

Slowing down means just that: slowing down. We want to take our new life by the horns and run, but our little ones need us to take them by the hand and adjust our pace to theirs. Jasper’s three-year-old legs were, and still are, significantly shorter than mine and Joel’s. If he was physically so much smaller than Joel and me, try to imagine the emotional equivalent of this disparity. We had to modify our pace both physically and emotionally to meet Jasper’s needs. It comes down to recognizing that the mountain we are so determined to conquer in one, two, or even four years, may take two, four-year terms instead of one. And we have to accept that and be okay with it. It’s not that the mountain will never be conquered; we will get to the top, but maybe not as quickly and heroically (from the perspective of the world) as we had anticipated. But to be very honest, I don’t want to make it to the top of the mountain by myself…a wise parent/leader wants to get there with their people. And so, we slow down.

Walking through the daily routines, creating visual schedules, and becoming intentional observers of our little ones helps them to feel more regulated and gives everyone a sense of control. Talking to them pre-event, rehearsing and play-acting on what a new experience might be like, also alleviates some of the internal stress. Pictures of places, people and possible sights that they will experience also prepares the child mentally for what is to come. They now have a frame of reference for the “new thing”.

The visual schedule, while not a miracle-working resource, was a huge help in regulating Jasper. I found pictures online that would match his daily routines and printed them out. He and I went over them together multiple times before we started implementing them. For him to “see” the process of his day was incredibly regulating.

Creating visual stories also became a part of his life and has helped him significantly with all manner of transitions. From starting a new school year, to toilet training, to preparing to fly on an airplane, visual stories have helped give him a picture of what is coming up and what he can expect.

Just as routine and structure have been good for me and our older kids, it is of utmost priority for our little guy on the autism spectrum (and I would add that it is critical for any young child, on or off of the spectrum). Routine regulates. Structure creates security. When chaos abounds, the little ones need a place of refuge, and that refuge is home. This is not a critique on working moms. I’m not pushing an agenda. I am speaking directly to helping a child process transition in a season of chaos, and home is their refuge. It takes incredible focus and intentionality to create a place of stability in a complex situation. If a caretaker is sidetracked with work and meetings and the demands of a job, then the child is not going to get the focused attention that he, or she, needs. Meltdowns will intensify, and the family will live in an elongated season of chaos. This, I guarantee.

This pathway to adjustment is a slow path and also requires keen discernment on what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to. I have found that in our current transition, I am saying “no” to things that I normally wouldn’t say “no” to. I am doing this because I see the ripple effect of each of those choices, and I have had to get really selfish with my time and my energy. The ripple effect is real. One decision impacts a million other areas of our lives. Some of those decisions are good, and the ripple effect is beneficial. Some of those decisions are necessary, and we have to learn to roll with the punches (and be really aware of how this unavoidable stress will affect our little ones). Some of the decisions we are faced with are not necessarily wrong or bad, but unnecessary. They can wait. If it can wait, then wait on it. Wait until life is more regulated. Because eventually, it will settle down, and everyone will be in a place of strength, and not constantly pulling from a tapped-out reservoir.

In addition to this thought, little ones- specifically little ones on the spectrum- are going to struggle with smells, sounds, tastes, and textures. They lack, especially without adequate resources, the internal fortitude to “handle” uncomfortable situations. From temperature to the volume of music, singing, talking, to the smell of new foods, Jasper was a walking time bomb. While I wanted to show respect in our new home/country, I also recognized that forcing Jasper to eat these strange foods, or force him stay in the church during service, was futile. The quickest way to completely unhinge that little boy was to force him into compliance. I had to let go of trying to please all the people. I had to say “no” to a lot of things. Those decisions to let my expectations fall were the best (and wisest considering I had no idea what I was doing) I have ever made.

Get the professional help and resources you need as quickly as possible. If you have a clear and professional diagnosis for your child before the major move, then you are well on your way to a “smoother” transition. I think it is most ideal if you are able to locate the necessary resources before you land at your new destination. If not, finding the appropriate doctors, therapists, and schooling options should be a priority upon arrival.

We came to South Africa, not with a formal diagnosis, but with a high recommendation from two doctors of what kind of help Jasper would need. We were referred to a Pediatric Developmental Psychologist in Durban, where we live, and as soon as the December holiday was over, we began the process of getting a formal diagnosis for Jasper. From that point on, we were thrust into a beautiful community of support, therapists, and resources for Jasper and our family. Having access to these tools has been- and continues to be- a blessing for all of us.

I believe the key to navigating transition with a child on the spectrum is formulating a plan of action well before the transition, ensuring that where you are landing will have the adequate resources you need, and adjusting your expectations on how it is all going to unfold.

And give yourself a lot of grace. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be hard. There are going to be good days and bad days. That’s okay. Breathe deeply, and rest in grace.

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One Response to “how to transition well in a season of chaos #2”

  1. Judy Hayburn says:

    So beautifully articulated. I think every parent needs to read your blogs. I have seen first-hand the fruit of your insightful wisdom, family schedules, and intentional ministry to your family every time I visit you. It is amazing how you create and maintain such a calm atmosphere in your home, especially in the midst of daily storms. You are an incredibly wise mother and your blogs are going to be life-lines for so many parents. Love, Mom

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