Thanks so much for joining me again today in our talk about altar service.
Routines and expectations are *really* important to a person with autism. Some people get hung up on time (I can’t put my shoes on, because it’s not 7:43 yet); some have trouble with things being “wrong” (I can’t function today because our neighbor parked on the street and not in her driveway). This may seem petty to you, so I’ll attempt to explain.
Details are hard to sort out for a person with autism. For example, it’s fairly easy for a neurotypical person to look at two dogs–one small, hairy, and brown, and the other big, slick, and gray–and know they’re both dogs. For someone with autism, it might be difficult to separate defining characteristics from small ones that don’t affect their “category.” Most of us don’t notice that this ability to automatically prioritize details cause our world to make sense.
So, when a person with autism finds a pattern, she’ll cling to it. It makes her world make sense. Variations from that break the rule, things stop making sense, and now the world just drags her through her day, while she’s at the mercy of every random event. Wouldn’t that be a terrifying way to live? They have to follow the rule.
That’s why I thought it was particularly insightful of my priest to point out this necessary skill for altar servers:
Necessary skill #3: Ability to respond to random requests
It wouldn’t be unheard of for a priest, especially during Pascha when he’s got a handful of service books, to say to an altar server, “Here, hold this book for me.” So how do we help our kids see these breaks from the norm as something expected, or at least something that doesn’t ruin their patterns?
1. Make a list of possibilities for the context of altar serving.
You may have to do it multiple times and/or in multiple ways, but inform your child that his job, in addition to standard altar server tasks, is to do whatever the priest requests during Liturgy. From there, you can list (verbally, in a paper-pen list format, social story format, or index cards, etc.) all the things he might ask a server to do.
Here are some examples (but be sure to get a more specific and comprehensive list from your own priest about his particular habits):
- “Hold this for me.”
- “Go get for me ______.”
- “Put this away.”
A list can be comforting, because it provides your child with a certainty that the possibilities are not infinite. Your priest is not going to ask him to do a dance. He’s not going to ask him to pretend to be a dog, clap his hands, or blow a whistle.
Again, make sure you consult your priest, and make sure he’s familiar with the list. If something happens to be accidentally left off the list, confirm that your priest knows to ask another server to complete that task, and ask you to add the item to your list later.
2. Start with something simple, and work “up.”
As you go about your day together, make a request. Start with “clap your hands.” Or “sing a song with me.” Make sure he knows he’ll get something for his efforts. Soon, you can move on to “put your shoes away,” or “Help me with this, dear–your sister left her shoes out. Can you put them away for me?” Always motivate, and always praise. Walk him through it, hand over hand, if you need to.
Variation here is the key. Autism activist Dr. Temple Grandin often talks about the benefit of having a wide selection of experiences for reference. In a 2009 article published in Philosophical Transactions for The Royal Society, she compares her mind to an internet search:
One disadvantage of my kind of thinking is that huge amounts of data are required to find the answers. Since my mind works similar to an Internet search engine, my ability to solve problems got better and better as I had more and more experiences and read more and more books and journal papers. This provided lots of images in my memory for the search engine in my mind to search.
So make a request of your child every day, to give him lots of examples to pick from for reference. A whooping, “WOOOHOOOO!” at his success probably won’t hurt anything, either (bearing in mind, of course, your child’s specific sensory issues). 🙂
3. Practice makes perfect
And for the same reason Mom made you practice your piano lessons, you’ll need to push it, and expect a little push-back. A lot of times, as the parent of a child with autism (at least for me), I know it’s a little foreign to think of these practices as skill-building. Personally, I often default to switching techniques quickly because the last one “didn’t work” in causing him to do something, or want to do something.
Of course, not every technique works for every challenge in every child, but we need to give practice a chance. You wouldn’t expect your child to play a new piano piece perfectly, or even well, after trying it twice. And even more absurdly, you wouldn’t switch texts or instructors because she’s not doing it right.
Keep trying. Keep expecting practice to bring familiarity and ultimately, a new skill.
I hope this is helpful in your efforts. Post 4 of 5 in this series is coming on Thursday, so come on back now!