Land Without Bells
Steve Szalowski, LCSW-R, has given presentations at Transitions and Lexington. He graduated from the State University of New York at Albany with a master’s in Social Welfare. Before starting his practice in 2008, he worked for the Center for Disability Services as a pre-school social worker and outpatient mental health therapist specializing in the autism spectrum. Since 2008, he has worked on a systems approach to addressing best practices for individuals on the spectrum at home, school and in the community. Szalowski has coordinated and co-facilitated more than 100 groups for school-aged individuals on the spectrum from grades 3 through 12. The following is a summary of his presentation “Land Without Bells.”
I created this presentation out of the most common issue I address in my office with individuals from adolescence to the young adulthood: the problems and obstacles they face while transitioning into a functional, independent adult.
I see a substantial amount and wide variety of people in my office, Camp Spectacular, high school groups and college/workplace groups. The common denominators among all these individuals are issues relating to the following interwoven areas:
- Difficulties with time management, including procrastination, not knowing how long tasks should take and inability to complete tasks without becoming distracted.
- Excessive parent/educator prompting for relatively easy tasks such as homework, hygiene, chores, exercise, waking and sleeping.
- Poor priorities in choosing electronic media vs. routine tasks (chores), scheduled routines (adult daily living skills) and social muscle opportunities (friends, clubs and leaving the house in general).
The above issues start early in life. At first parents think this is a phase, but in my experience, it becomes a lifestyle that frustrates both the parents and the children in their households. By high school, parents are significantly concerned that their child will not become independent.
Their behavior becomes more frustrating and frightening to the parents who fear that the computer, TV, phone and video games are an addiction. It was initially a strength that their child mastered a 21st century device with ease, but as they grow older, separating from electronics becomes difficult. This difficulty can even show parents “scary sides” of their children, from aggression toward the parent’s authority to toxic thoughts toward themselves.
Understanding the challenges of the Land Without Bells becomes even more important when you realize that a typical school experience is part of a child’s life from ages 5-18. It usually involves 40 hours a week from morning bus to afternoon bus. This mandatory socially structured time out of the house includes multiple transitions, intellectual challenges, physical movement and social experience. These hours are scheduled and structured to tell the child where and when to be for 13 years. Regardless if you think these are positive experiences for the child, they are important to prepare for post-secondary education and the world of work.
They also come to an end upon graduation. Once high school is over, young adults are suddenly responsible for their own schedule. If they go to college, their structured class time usually becomes 12-15 hours a week, or less if they take online classes. If they work, unless its full-time, their schedule may vary weekly. This all results in a young adult with more time to be home and become comfortable not leaving the house unless required to.
Ultimately self-esteem, self-confidence and self-awareness are linked to obstacles and opportunities.
Solving These Obstacles
These are five basic strategies I use in my office to help young people overcome these obstacles. All are appropriate for pre- and post-graduation from high school. They are much more effective the earlier they are implemented.
- Having a routine provides the individual with structure. Having a concrete wake up time and bed time can be helpful. It can also be beneficial to learn to relax before bed. For example, it could be a rule that for one hour before bed, the kitchen is closed and no electronics are in use. Individuals should use this time to do something relaxing, such as take a shower, read or draw. Waking up should be done independently, with alarm clocks rather than parents.
- Eating a protein-based breakfast and lunch daily reduces erratic moods and increases attention, coping skills and frustration tolerance.
- Exercising 30-60 minutes a day increases dopamine and endorphins. These are effective in reducing negative anxiety features.
- Getting out of the house as much as possible is important for overall health. Exercising social muscles doesn’t always mean actively socializing. Going to the library and the store is dealing with people. Waiting in line and tolerating proximity are social skills. The goal is to be away from your own home. You can even do structured social situations like volunteering, church groups or bowling leagues. It is important to “deal with the uncomfortable.” Many people avoid discomfort at all times and never venture out to accomplish anything. You can avoid the discomfort of a world of people that can be irritating, annoying and unpredictable, or you can embrace the challenge of tolerance of a world of change. This will give you the self-esteem to talk about your daily challenges of getting out into the world instead of isolating from it.
- Keeping written schedules and checklists helps with developing a healthy life routine. Put your daily schedule and things to do list in front of you for 90 days and you’re on your way to changing your life. If you do something for 90 straight days, your mind and body adjusts to the new normal. This will lead to 120-180 days, and cement your commitment to the point that written checklists and schedules are no longer necessary.