Why your kid won't tidy up
I’m always amazed by the wonderful children’s rooms you can find on Instagram and Pinterest. You know, the ones in which everything goes well with everything and you can indeed find a tipi tent with wooden frame. I’m also impressed with the beautifully dressed children who usually play nicely with each other in silence. I’m wondering if they will put the toys away. Though with those three wooden blocks, it shouldn’t be a hassle.
In our home, as – I suspect – in many others too, the reality is far from that. Even if two years ago, I put away all the toys in separate containers in our storage room and (in theory) they choose 5 per kid every week.
Sunday is our tidying/cleaning day. It doesn’t matter how hard we try to keep it together during the week, the mess happens sooner or later. Slip one day, and there you go.
There are times when our children nicely team up and tidy up in no time in perfect harmony. Now, this is rare. There are these other times, when Aron is “weltering” in his bed whining, saying he will never ever tidy up, no matter what, he hates his life and doesn’t care if he won’t have his screen time. I’m sure we all know this one too well.
I’ll tell you how we deal with this in a second, but first, let me tell you a few things about how these things are with autistic kids. It’s often quite challenging to have them do something they aren’t interested in, seem pointless or cause anxiety. They might simply shut down, rage or burst out crying if we ask (reason with, beg or trying to convince) them to do something that falls in these categories. The best first step is trying to figure out what causes this opposition.
To do this, we have to see if the task at hand is in sync with our child’s developmental stage. According to psychologists, the social-emotional age of autistic children is about the third of their biological age. Thus, they may only do half of the work in twice the time it would take for their neurotypical peers to do the whole task.
For example, many autistic kids won’t be able to tidy their room 100% independently for a long time. They usually freeze right at the beginning because they have no idea where to start. This behaviour is also typical among children with ADHD. Both groups have difficulties because their executive functions work differently.
What are these functions?
Analysing tasks, planning them, defining the necessary steps, estimating the time a task takes, reiterate if something goes wrong and do the work within the given timeframe.
These functions influence cognitive flexibility (the mindset towards being flexible when it comes to executing plans) and also the ability to switch between tasks easily. Short‑termmemoryis involved too (if we ask too many things simultaneously, they might only remember the first one) as well as maintainingfocus and controlling reactions.
The most difficult action for autistic children is starting a task. Because it’s hard for them to control their reactions as their emotional development is usually slower, we might miss the real message. They probably just want to say: “mom, I have no idea how to start doing this”. (This is a lovely example of the “every behaviour is communication” phrase).
How can we help?
First of all, plan ahead. Put tidying in the schedule whenever possible and go through the schedule together multiple times. This way, the child can see what’s coming after what. This need is something Aron learnt to communicate towards us. He often told us how he hated when we asked him to do something that wasn’t in the schedule (and is not related to football, haha).
Then, we just have to think about those moments when our child can do or discuss something they enjoy tremendously. They concentrate with their whole body, they become energetic, their body language and posture liven up. We can use this “switch” to make things more interesting for them.
And now I tell you how we do this.
Aron, for example, (surprise!) is obsessed with soccer. He practices a lot, he’s collecting cards, playing soccer games on the iPad, always plays with a ball whenever his feet are close to one. I believe he knows at least the name of every soccer players on earth if not their age and height. So the easiest way to involve him in something if we connect it to soccer somehow. Of course, I can’t ask him to kick all his toys back in their places, but he can start tidying up by kicking the stuffed animals in a container. This positive (and quite funny) start makes the whole situation a little more cheerful, and it’s much easier to build it up from there.
Or here’s another one. He loves multiplication. I guess it’s not for everyone, but these are just illustrations of what I mean. I can tell him to create 5 heaps of Lego so that all of them contains 12 pieces. Put the heaps back in the container one by one, and let me know how much Lego is left there every time. It’s obviously a lot slower than just shovelling all back at once. Still, I make it more enjoyable for him by connecting it with something he loves doing.
Most of the time, these kinds of actions already help a lot to make things go easier. However, we’re about to implement a weekly chore chart. We break down the bigger tasks for short daily activities for the whole family. We will start with simple ones, so we all feel successful. This way we can show them on Sunday, that if we are doing small things continuously throughout the week, it’s easier (and takes less time) to make it done on the weekend.
I’d like to mention a vital thing in the end. We have to make sure that we always praise the kids for trying. Even if the end result is not something we expected, it’s important to let them know how happy we are that they did their best. You know your child, you know how much praise she or he needs to feel appreciated. The point is to let them know you noticed and they are on the right track. We also like to tell them that they should be proud of themselves when they achieve something by working hard for it. This way, we encourage their inner motivation. They learn how satisfying it is to accomplish something when we put so much energy into it.
Let me know about your methods in the comments!