Last week James needed his hair cut. A simple enough task you might think, but in James’ case it is one of very many tasks that require a routine to be known, and more importantly rigorously followed, in every aspect. We had been putting it off for a while, using lockdown as an excuse, but in reality James’ lockdown haircut was the same as any haircut he has ever had, as we have to follow the same routine and do it all at home.
Firstly, there is the location; sat on the wooden bench in our hallway at home. Then there is the identity of the ‘barber’, me, ably assisted by Clare (his mum) who keeps all of the clippings out of his face. Then there is the ‘distraction’, James’ iPad, fully loaded with films and his favourite YouTube clips (currently roller-coaster and train rides, he wants to go out!) Finally, there is the clipping process itself (grade 4, by the way, for any aficionado’s), which involves starting at the back, then the front, and finally the most difficult and suspense filled part of all… around the ears.
James has his hair cut like this about four or five times a year.
As long as we keep to this routine, all is fine. Any change would be enormously difficult for him, and therefore for us. I have visions of him with Grade 4 at the back and front but long at the sides over his ears, but lockdown is at least saving him (and us) from anyone seeing that if it happened!
The reason I share James’ haircut story with you is to illustrate that routine and familiarity are fundamentally core to the coping mechanisms of many children and young people with additional needs; particularly but not restricted to Autism Spectrum Condition, ADHD and other similar neurological conditions. So often this is misunderstood by adults, or just plain missed, with awful consequences for the child/young person.
I heard a story a while ago of a young person with ADHD who, in order to cope with change, needed to stand in the doorway of a room he was entering/leaving and tap several times on the door frame. He did this wherever he went, including at school, but often 30 pupils trying to leave the classroom for their break together were not interested in waiting for him to complete this important routine and would push him through the doorway, resulting in him lashing out in desperation. This was interpreted as violent behaviour and he was excluded from his school and sent to a Pupil Referral Unit for young people with violent behaviour.
Now imagine if the school staff had been better trained. If they had had a system where that young person could leave 30 seconds before everyone else, or leave after everyone else had gone (whatever worked best for him), so that he could complete his routine. If they had understood why he needed to do that. If they had understood other ways in which he coped with change, with a busy school full of pupils and noise, with the overwhelming of his senses on a daily basis. Perhaps then there could have been a better outcome for him and for the school, a better strategy than sending him to a Pupil Referral Unit.
The opportunities to make good or bad choices regarding children and young people with additional needs or disability exist in all walks of life. I remember a youth leader being put through to my ‘phone one day whose opening line was; “I’ve got this lad in my group, he’s got ADHD and he’s a nightmare. What can I do to exclude him?”
I took a deep breath and asked the leader to explain to me what had happened.
It seems that during the youth group’s ‘talk time’ this lad had started to get a bit unsettled, showing early signs of anxiety and stress. The leader had told him that as he couldn’t sit still and listen, he wasn’t going to get tuck this week. The lad liked tuck (who doesn’t like tuck!) and so things ratcheted up a notch or two. The leader responded by saying that as the tuck penalty hadn’t worked, the lad was suspended from club for a week and so couldn’t come next week. Next week was party night and the lad had been looking forward to it immensely, so things then really kicked off and he was sent home (I’ve summarised a much longer story).
I rewound the conversation with the leader asking him to identify all the times that opportunities had been missed to support this young person, to recognise his needs and to help him to manage his stress and anxiety. There were many… the leader finished the call saying that he was going to call the parents of the lad straight away, to apologise and to invite him to back to the party the next week, by which time a strategy to support the lad would be in place, known by the whole team.
All of these examples show us that taking the time to understand each child or young person individually, to understand what they find hard and why, to understand how they cope (and sometimes fail to cope) and why; to help them to understand that we are there for them, to help them and to support them, all of this is so vitally important. So often, the challenging behaviour that we might see, and wrongly judge them for, is a final cry for help when we’ve missed so many other pleas for help and support already. It’s a last desperate way of trying to get our attention, or a final attempt to respond to their overwhelming feelings.
Surely, however we look at this, we must put the child/young person first; do everything we possibly can to remove or limit stress and anxiety, ensure the necessary routines are followed, and so help them to cope… Putting their needs above our own; us doing the adapting rather than expecting the child to.
That’s why, in about three-months’ time, I’ll be sat on the wooden bench in the hall with James (always on his right), clippers in hand with roller-coaster rides on his iPad, praying that I can get the side bits of his haircut done so that he doesn’t go out (if we can by then!) looking like Max Wall…