What if??


It happens, things get cancelled things get postponed.
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Often the plans we have made don’t quite work out exactly. Living vicarage type lives definitely increases the probability of it happening – the plus is that its never dull, and Andrew’s work hours are incredibly flexible sometimes, of course the downside of that is that there are many days when I can’t be definite about exactly when Andrew will be home; and as a family we have to flex too to fit around an ever changing pattern of work, some in the house and some not. Of course there are bigger changes that face any family too; from term-time to holiday, from autumn to winter, from weekday to weekend, living in one place then moving to another, in work to out of work, from illness to health, growth, death. One thing I am sure of is that I cannot stop change happening in the lives of my children either now, or in the future. Change happens.

Its obvious I know but some of you will know full well the implications of my ramblings – if change happens, for us stress and anxiety happens too.

Some of us cope with change better than others and probably some changes are easier to cope with than others for most of us. For someone with an ASD, change of any kind – from the smallest to the largest, can be a source of intense stress and anxiety. Because it is often hard for them to put into words (or even know in themselves) the different emotions that are welling up in them, the outcome is often simply all consuming, sudden and paralyzing anxiety. So I work hard at finding and implementing strategies that can soften the impact of change, prepare them for changes and help them handle their anxieties.

Known change ahead

Some changes are in fact easier for me to facilitate, simply because we knew they were coming. Some even have a definite date on the calendar which is even better. These changes can be prepared for. Often that means work for me to do (and as they get older, work they join in with) finding key facts about the change, and writing down or finding pictures that will move our understanding from unknown to a more concrete visual understanding of what the change involves. For example before moving here, once it was confirmed we would be, we set B the task of finding out about the town, what shops were there, what take-away there is, what clubs and social groups, what was in the park, was there a leisure centre and what was on offer, how many schools, how many pre-schools for when T was old enough. It became clear that A wanted to find out about museums and cinemas, and places for days out, so he got that task, finding out how far away things were, how much it would cost, how long in the car, where might we eat out near by if we went there. They had folders to collate their findings, and they took it very seriously! I’m sure that it provided a focus to channel some of their nervous energy into, but it also started to build in a sense of ownership and element of control over what was going to be a huge change for them.

We also brought them with us to visit the church and meet some of the people in the family here, and another visit just for the older two to look round their new schools before we moved, and another visit to the house (including a picnic lunch in the garden here – a good chance to verbalize what it would be like to play here, which rooms upstairs looked over the garden & which over the front – some of the little things that stress) and we drew a plan together with measurements and named each new room, saying out loud what colours we were thinking of for the walls, beginning to talk about where different pieces of furniture would probably go. The plan we had drawn that day was our tangible reminder of the house we were getting ready for. T was quite little really, but we found a sticker & colouring book all about moving house, so the week or so before we began to read through it, each time we read she asked different things, and gradually it just helped a little to give her an idea of what to expect when we said we are going to move to our new house next week. If I hadn’t found that book I was going to put together a 2014-07-03 19.19.20social story to read with her, which we have done for her starting school and other known changes.

Unknown changes 

What is more difficult is preparing for unexpected changes. You don’t know what you are preparing for, and you have no idea when you need to be ready! I have found it useful to talk about ‘what if…’ at times when things are relatively calm; sometimes in the lead up to an actual event – What if its raining a lot at the time we had planned to go and watch fireworks? But also about nothing in particular, asking them to tell something of their day, and then gently prompting with ‘but what if…’ questions to explore some of the different outcomes that could have been. I have found it has gradually stretched thinking enough to begin building in the concept of possible change for B – I think she does now, with prompting, know she has to factor in the possibility that in any situation there are things that could be different and they would change the outcome.

When B was little I would play this as a game, choosing a doll or teddy each, one doll would start the game doing something or saying something to the other, then the other would respond and we would explore what the outcome would be. The ‘what if’ question then came into the game, could the second doll have done something different? what would have happened next then? Part of the game was to try and count how many different endings we could create – with hindsight I think we were exercising & resourcing a skill that didn’t come instinctively, and I’m sure it helped broaden thinking.

B’s school last year produced a sheet for her to keep in her blazer pocket which did the same thing, it had photos of a few staff members that she knew how to find at certain times of the day. It described what they could help students with, and where they might be in the school at other times of the day (or if they simply weren’t where B expected them to be). Then there was a sentence next to each giving B permission to go to them if she needed to ask something or if she needed help. At the bottom of the sheet were bullet point possible reasons for needing help, for eg. My class is not in the classroom on the timetable, how can I find out where they are?/ Someone said they would meet me here at lunchtime but they haven’t come, what can I do?/I am worried about some homework but I don’t see the teacher who set it till my next lesson, what can I do?/ I feel unwell, where do I go? In a significant way the sheet asked her the ‘what if’ question and gave permission and strategies to find key people should those situations arise unexpectedly. It let her rehearse some outcomes. All of that has helped to reduce the stress impact of inevitable change (Yes it has reduced, not removed!!).

So what of faith?

When I think about these things I am also reflecting I suppose on the impact that the stresses and emotional responses to change have on the process of nurturing faith. There is a huge desire and need to find certainty, the predictable and the dependable. The Bible describes the character of God as a rock – solid, firm, immovable. There are unchanging things about God, about His character and His promises that I hope are becoming fixed foundations for our growing faith, that are foundations we learn to lean into as we learn to live out our faith. But these solid foundations, though unchanging in nature and character are not, because of that within our control. They are not predictable; God our solid rock is also described as mystery, wild, unknown yet revealed, powerful Creator and Judge. I am aware of how important I have found it to talk about these things very clearly.

God, the one and only… He’s solid rock under my feet,

breathing room for my soul, An impregnable castle.

(Psalm 62:2 The Message)

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm…

 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
 On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
 while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy?…

(Job 38:1,4-7 NIV)

I suppose a good example would be how I speak about prayer with my children. For me it is an unchanging truth that God chooses to listen whenever and wherever we pray and so I hope that I have shown that truth in how we shape our family life together – stopping in the midst of activities or conversation to talk to Him about difficult, sad, or joyful things & trying to encourage ending each day with a reminder to talk to God about anything and everything in our day and by talking about prayer as something that is always available to us and never empty because our Father God is always ready to spend that time talking and listening with us.

But (and it is an important but) I have tried also to be clear in what I say and in my actions about the difference between ‘He always listens’ & what we often hope that means ‘He will always agree with me’. Similarly I have tried to articulate the difference between ‘He always answers prayer’ and what we hope that means ‘He will always do what I ask’. We have found it helpful to spell out that an answer can be yes, can be no and can be not yet. And that dependable love can be expressed in each of those different answers at different times. We keep working on describing and modelling prayer as a conversation with a living God not an action similar to putting money in a vending machine. It is an unchanging foundation, but it is definitely out of our control and definitely not predictable! So in that sense there will always be an element of discomfort about that. Holding in faith the unchangeable and the unpredictable doesn’t come easily – especially when everything within you seemingly longs for the safety of predictable routine and to have everything under control, but it does slowly get easier the more we get to know and trust our Father God…

The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. (Deut 33:26 NIV)

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