When Plans Need to Change Quickly

This past weekend, my husband, Brent, and I took our youngest son, Barclay, (who is five years old) to visit our oldest daughter, Danielle, and her husband, Doug. On Saturday, Brent and Doug went golfing, and Danielle and I had plans to take Barclay to the aquarium. The week prior, I showed him videos of aquariums and pictures of the animals he would see, trying to build anticipation and expectation.

Because he has Autism Spectrum Disorder, he needs a lot of prep to do anything new. Children on the autism spectrum are prone to overstimulation, dysregulation and confusion in unfamiliar settings. However, no amount of prep could have prepared us for what ended up happening!

Saturday morning, Barclay woke up super excited to go to the aquarium. We weren’t going until the afternoon, so we decided to do a little shopping first. We found a Toy Story Pizza Planet playset for a good deal, so I bought it for him. He is a HUGE Toy Story fan. BIG MISTAKE!

Once we got into the car, he began telling us, “Sorry guys, no aquarium. I need to go back to Danielle’s to play with this Pizza Planet.” I had already purchased the aquarium tickets, couldn’t get a refund, and Danielle and I really wanted to go. We kept telling him all the cool animals he’d see and how much fun we would all have.

Eventually he caved, and reluctantly said, “Fine, I’ll go!” Danielle and I wiped the sweat from our brows and felt we dodged a bullet. However, claiming victory was a little premature.

After the laborious process of procuring parking, walking to the aquarium, waiting in line, having bags checked, and then finally being granted admission, Barclay (tethered to me for safety) sprinted through the massive aquarium with Danielle and me gasping for breath behind him. In less than 15 minutes of what should have taken several hours, we landed in the gift shop conveniently located at the exit.

Rather than browse the aesthetically pleasing shelves of toys, books, and souvenirs, Barclay only wanted to see the items cleverly placed in the check-out line for the impulse-buyers. However, due to COVID-19 protocol, the line was one-way. So I had to drag my kicking and screaming child out of the souvenir shop as he gave a very entertaining performance for everyone watching.

I felt terrible for Danielle, who didn’t get to browse the exhibits at the aquarium she so loves. However, I did tell her in advance, the plan is we over-plan, but we also plan to abandon that plan at a moment’s notice if need be. If I tell you it’s time to go then, that means it is time to go.

I realized a few things during this most recent excursion. For one, DO NOT go shopping and purchase Barclay anything BEFORE an event is about to take place. Barclay also is more of a “do things” kid than a “see things” kid. So when we choose an activity, it needs to include more “doing” than “seeing.” I also should have realized that we were already staying in the unfamiliar setting of his sister’s house and his routine had been disrupted. Taking him to the aquarium in addition was probably just too much for him.

Once we got back to Danielle’s, Barclay was so excited to bust out his Pizza Planet playset and watch Toy Story! I could tell that being able to enjoy something familiar helped to regulate him.

Danielle fell to the couch and exclaimed, “That was exhausting, and it only lasted 30 minutes!”

I told her, “Right, but you would have been so much more exhausted had we stayed all day! Barclay did us a favor!” We just laughed and joined in the Toy Story fun!

I’ve learned many valuable lessons about life in general by having a child with special needs. One of those lessons and this one was VERY hard for me, is that plans often need to change quickly. Being a Type-A personality, I am an over-planner who spends a great deal of time agonizing over details. That means that once I’ve developed a plan, I am committed to seeing it through.

However, Barclay has taught me that yes, it is important to plan, but it is okay if that plan must change. Had I forced the issue and we’d stayed hours, it would have surely ended in a meltdown. We took his cues and were still able to enjoy a fun afternoon.

Inasmuch as I sometimes want to show Barclay the world, I have to remember that for now sometimes the world is just too big for him and that is perfectly okay!

“Autism is a journey I never expected. But I sure do love my tour guide! – Author Unknown

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Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 5-33! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience, a freelance writer, and a special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.