Spectrum Warriors: Life Through The Autism Spectrum

The Importance of the Right Prep

We heard about storyteller Donna Washington coming to town and purchased tickets to see her because MJ loves stories in all forms. Leading up to the day, I decided not to write a social story because we’d been to the venue several times before. I chose instead to find pictures and an audio clip of a story for her to listen to so she could hear Donna’s voice. We packed a special bag for the show which had her favourite stuffy Pete, her ear muffs and some squishy sensory toys. I thought we we were set.  I was wrong.

The day started off with MJ telling us she didn’t want to eat and that the green liquid in her stomach was in her throat because she was nervous and asked us for a Papaya mint, which on a side note it is like a natural “Tums”  which we swear by. Not long after as we were playing dolls here’s what happened in our house:
“Mom can I use your lipstick?”
Me: “Why?”
“So I can look pretty for my game in case I go out in my game.”
“You can just pretend, you don’t need real lipstick, besides you look pretty without”
Doll gets thrown (whipped) across the room “I need it to be beautiful or no one will love me. If you don’t give me lipstick I can’t leave the house today.”
“MJ we don’t throw dolls, we’re all done playing this, you need to have a 2 minute sit.”
MJ starts screaming
“Nooo I’m never leaving the house – don’t you understand – I just want to stay home always!” I don’t like noises, I don’t like people, I don’t like not knowing what is going to happen exactly.”
Me: MJ, let’s talk about today. I go over to her to touch her.
More screaming
“Don’t touch me! I’m going up to my room to be alone and hide under a blanket. LEAVE me alone”
Goes upstairs slams door.
5 mins later comes down. “Mommy I’m sorry, can I have a really, really tight hug?”
I hug her tightly. She asks to be hugged tighter.
“Mommy I just wanted to play the way I wanted. I NEED the lipstick to be beautiful”
“MJ you are beautiful inside and out just the way you are – you don’t need anything.”
MJ bursts into tears. 5 mins of solid crying.

Our morning continued with several more meltdowns and quite the clever attempt at an escape behaviour. Not long before we had to get ready to go, we were playing a game of Go Fish and well like any four year old, she’s not so good at hiding her cards. 🙂

After my turn, I noticed that MJ actually had the card I had just asked for. I kept quiet and on the next turn she asked me for the card I had. I stayed quiet. After the game, I asked her about it. She started to lie but did it while looking at me square in the eyes – as if to say: I know you know, what are you going to do, punish me?

My autism mom radar kicked in and instead of getting mad and punishing her, I asked her a specific question. “Did you cheat on purpose so I would get mad and say we weren’t going to go because you were bad?” She looked at me, tears welling in her eyes and nodded. Well now, how to deal with this? Obviously we don’t reward cheating, but if I told her were weren’t going, she’d accomplish her end goal – to not go. So instead we had a talk about what it means to try our best and be mindful in games.

Next up, getting ready to go. At this point, MJ was still in her pj’s and was wearing a princess dress over top. Well when I said it was time to go pick out what clothes we were going to wear, she started her usual I-don’t-want-to-leave-the-house-so-I-am-going-to-procrastinate tactics and another meltdown was fast approaching.

She then defiantly looked at me and said “I’ll only go if I can wear what I am wearing now.” I looked at her a20140316-215628.jpgnd thought – well at least she’s wearing clothes… So I bargained.. I said “Ok you can go in your pjs and princess dress if you let me brush your teeth and hair and put on some socks.” (Really, that could be considered normal attire for any four-year-old-girl)

Her response? “Fine, but I’m going to wear a tiara too if you make me brush my hair.” Me. “Deal.”

We had continued stall tactics, but we managed to get out the door – and although we thought we might be late, we were just on time and even managed a trip to the bathroom so she could remember where it was.

As we were in the car, I had an epiphany – every time we’ve been to the Playhouse before, she knew exactly what she was going to see in the performance.  We normally carefully select children’s shows we know she’ll like and that she knows (we had a bad experience before her diagnosis with an Imagination Movers concert – holy sensory overload; but have since learned our lesson).

I realized that although she was familiar with the Playhouse itself, had seen a picture of “Donna” and had heard her voice (something I thought I was so smart for thinking of), there was still a massive unknown. She didn’t know WHAT story she was going to hear or how many for that matter.

I thought about how to ask her if this was what was bothering her without “leading” her. So I casually said, “MJ, I wonder if Donna will be wearing the same outfit we saw in the pictures we looked at? I wonder if she’ll tell us the rest of the story we’ve been listening to or if she’ll tell us something else? What do you think?”

Her response (in one big ramble) “Mommy, what will she tell us? How long will we be there? How many stories will she tell? What is the story? Do I know the story?”


“MJ, I’m sorry that I don’t know these answers, we will have to find out together, it will be a little bit like an adventure. It can be scary when we don’t know what is going to happen, but you know what, we’ll find out together.”

During the show, MJ used all of the coping tools in her special bag, her squishy sensory items, her earmuffs and of course she clutched Pete as tight as tight can be! When Donna started, the first thing she did was tell the audience that she was going to go through four stories in one hour. I looked at MJ and I could just see the tension release from her. She looked at me and smiled and said “Four stories mom, there will be four stories.” And as she finished each story, MJ sat counting down saying “three more to go, three more to go” and so on.

But I also watched something beautiful unfold, which made all the drama worth it. She started becoming engaged, participating when the storyteller asked questions or for audience participation. After the show, Donna asked if the audience had questions and I nearly fell off my chair when MJ raised her hand. She wasn’t picked, but I was so proud of her and when Donna said she would answer additional questions out in the lobby.  I asked MJ if she wanted to go – she looked at me and said yes.

We went out to the lobby, stood in line and although MJ started going to town on her chew necklace and fidgeting, she waited, she stayed calm. It was her turn. She went up to Donna and then she lost her voice – I’m not sure Donna heard her and I know I didn’t but she told me after she thanked her. Donna, simply smiled at her, told her she had the biggest blue eyes she’d ever seen and offered to pose for a picture – and you know what? We got one! All in all it ended up being a good day – but I learned some very valuable tips I’m going to share:

1. Even if you think a social story is not needed – DO ONE. It will help you work through potential questions that might arise.

2. Call ahead and ask questions when you can. I could have called and asked how many stories and how long the show would be (or emailed the story teller).

3. Pack a special bag that is just for outings filled with special sensory items and things that will help calm them down if your child gets overwhelmed.

4. Always look at meltdowns on the day of (or leading up to the event) for triggers and clues to understand what it is specifically that might be causing the stress to see if there is something (a trigger) you can figure out and deal with ahead of time. If I’d done the first two things, we might have had more really good moments today.


The biggest lesson I took away in all of this – is a reminder in how important prep is – especially the right prep.

– Rebecca


  1. Thank you for writing about this. I appreciate you brining MJ, and I remember that gorgeous girl with the tiara. I do not have a child on the spectrum, but I have worked with many of them. Your daughter was wonderful. I am glad she had a good time, and I hope you two find more storytellers. Thank you again for bringing her and for sharing your story and hers.

    • Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to read this. We did have a great time and MJ has been enjoying listening to the CD we picked up. I also want to reiterate that your set up at the beginning for timing and expectations made all the difference in our day – so thank you. We hope you come back to Fredericton soon.

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