A child with processing problems often has difficulty understanding all the sensory information that is coming at them. The world inundates us with billions of information bits that require processing on a second by second basis. There is information that comes in through our senses about function and structure of everything that one experiences. Qualities, movements, quantities, objects are all processed at the same time by the senses. When a child has a difficult time processing this information quickly, that is when they start to withdraw from the world and retreat into a world of their own thoughts.
Pretend for a moment that you are sitting in a calculus class, and this is the very first time you have been exposed to math. How long will you sit there before you understand what is being taught? It’s a safe bet to say for many that it would be a long time. At first you would be so overwhelmed that you try to pay attention… then slowly you would stop, you might start looking around the room, doodle on some paper, start humming your favorite song in your head. The point being that very little of your attention would be directed at what was being taught. You would retreat into the sanctuary of your own mind, where things are familiar and understandable.
Conversely, now pretend that you are sitting in your very first calculus class but before you got there you had been taught everything you needed to know so that you understood the class and be successful. Chances are pretty good that now, you find the class more interesting, it holds your attention.
The point I am trying to make here is that if you know and have the required skills that are needed to take the next step forward you will be more willing to take it and have greater success at it.
When parenting a child with autism, we are often faced with the dilemma of whether or not we should add more structure to our child’s life. (This is true really of parenting children on and off the spectrum, but when parenting a child with autism it has a different importance.) Do we need to create more routines for them to help them be more successful or do we allow them to struggle some so that they can adapt to the world around them. Let’s face it, the world stops for no one and that isn’t going to change. Many of us set up visual schedules for our children to help make their life easier.
The real question is, do we adapt structures and schedules for our child or do we start to teach them the real world?
The answer… it depends. Not as clear cut as you were hoping I am sure, but the reason for that answer is this. Structure is added when you want to teach an alternative skill. A visual schedule structure helps make information processing easier for the child. There is a time and place for adding structure. Adding structure means that there are pre-requisite skills or other skills that are important to teach.
Whenever you plan on adding structure, keep in mind that it should always point to a plan of decreasing that structure in the future so that your child can get used to unpredictability of the world. A structured environment should never be the goal. One the pre-requisite skills are learned then the structure needs to be decreased. Yes, this can create some temporary turmoil, but if you do it correctly it will help teach new skills in a more natural environment.
When it is time to teach a new skill, add more structure. As the skill is learned and mastered, decrease the structure.