The Comfort Zone
Individuals on the autism spectrum typically have a strong drive to be in their “comfort zone”. Their intensity surrounding maintaining their “status quo” and access to their preferred routines, activities, people, and objects is one of the hallmarks of the condition. For individuals with ASD, high anxiety and even panic can be created by leaving the comfort zone. This is one of the aspects of autism that is most interfering to maturing, developing relationships, getting and maintaining a job, and to independence generally. It is true for all individuals, and not just those on the autism spectrum, that you must be uncomfortable sometimes in order to grow.
So, as a parent or neurotypical guide for a young person on the autism spectrum, I encourage you to tackle comfort zone issues directly and very often, with deliberate, positive practice.
1) To set things up, first frame the issue positively and matter of factly. The language you use is important! Read the following for guidance:
Remind your young person with ASD about positivity (see the Positivity blog), and refer to the scale that you have hopefully posted somewhere central in your home. Ideally you have been talking about positivity in multiple ways across many situations, have created a “team approach” or partnership with your child over positivity in word choices, body language, and response to problems, and you have been encouraging (and modeling!) getting/giving “3’s” and “4’s” for positivity in response to many things in your daily lives.
Talk about intense preferences as “comfortable” and moving away from intense preferences as “uncomfortable”. Talk about examples of you and others being comfortable and uncomfortable, and that everyone prefers being comfortable. But all of us need to be uncomfortable sometimes in order to grow. You are a team, you have a stake and a partnership with your child to help him/her grow into an adult who can be comfortable in more and more situations. Bring up that tolerating discomfort is often an area that needs to be actually practiced for people with ASD. You may reference future benefits while being patient with potential issues around “the big picture” (please read The Big Picture blog).
2) Next, make actual plans with your child to do something that is out of their comfort zone, starting with more easily tolerated things and moving toward things that are less easily tolerated; also start with discomforts that are pre-planned, moving to “surprises” with warnings, and later actual surprises. Make this concrete, that is encourage your child to work for 3’s or 4’s on the positivity scale--”do-overs” are fine! This is practice--it can be “field trips”, it can be “surprises”, it can be celebrated, and it can be framed positively. Hopefully this practice will help your young person with ASD to become someone who more flexibly and positively deals with being out of his/her comfort zone, which directly supports success in employment.