Allow me to share with you a couple of recent experiences relating to the identical twins of Autism and Anxiety.
First, a few weeks ago, I took my two younger boys, along with a couple of young cousins, to a new park by our house. It’s an enormous and exciting place, with massive climbing structures and a giant splashpad section devoted to water play.
The morning we were there was pretty hot. My littlest boy hadn’t eaten a whole lot for breakfast (Hi, sensory food aversions, thanks for being a thing), and he was hot and grumpy. All of this added to his feeling of being overwhelmed. It was too much. Too much sun, too much noise, too many people. He started wailing. I mean, really screaming and moaning and sobbing. I had other kids spread throughout the park and didn’t want to pack them up after just arriving, so I texted Jeff, who was working from home and who could come pick him up and take Littlest home.
It took Jeff 25 minutes to get there once he extricated himself from a conference call. In that 25 minutes, my littlest boy never stopped wailing. In fact, he got louder. And wailier. I spoke calmly to him and reassured him Dad was on his way, but he was beyond reason at that point. He was inconsolable. We got a few looks, like “Why is that big tall kid freaking out and sobbing?” or perhaps “What’s with that mom? Why doesn’t she take that kid away and leave us in peace?”
This experience back in my early mothering days would have scorched the self-confidence right out of me. It would have done me in for the whole day. But now, post-Jack, I felt okay. I almost felt like saying to the other moms around me, “You guys, this is NOTHING. He’s not even attacking or hurting anyone. Really, this is straight up no big deal.”
That probably would’ve made things even weirder though.
Anyway, Jeff arrived and took the screamer away. The day continued. The park returned to regular kid bedlam.
The second story happened yesterday, on the first day of school. My littlest boy went to first grade and got confused about where he was meant to line up after recess. The chalk marker that had indicated his teacher’s name at the school open house was gone. At this point, anxiety and the rigid thinking of autism immobilized him. He curled up in a ball and refused to go into class, even when the Assistant Principal helped him know where his classroom was.
Jeff and I went to the school, where Littlest was digging in his heels and refusing to do first grade. We were ultimately saved by lunch. I stayed and helped the boy know where to go in the lunch room. I helped him find his lunchbox in the bin with his teacher’s name on it. I helped him find the table with his teacher’s name on it. I sat by him while he ate his peanut butter sandwich. And I helped him clean up and file back to class after his teacher.
Incidentally, I also helped half the class open their chocolate milk cartons and tie their shoes. First graders basically need a personal assistant. Any old grown up will do.
I looked around at the 10 million elementary school kids around us who WEREN’T struggling, and I felt that creeping, icky feeling of being an outlier. “We are so freaking not the same as other families,” I thought.
Reader, it didn’t do me in, but it was a bit of a face slap.
“Wake up and stop thinking you can do things like everyone else!” It screamed at me.
Once we returned to his classroom, Littlest sat at his desk and was calm. He agreed to stay through the rest of the day without me.
This morning, I am at my first day back at class too, teaching university writing. So Jeff took Littlest to school and helped him get situated. Apparently, it was a little bit of a teary goodbye, but not too bad. I’m super proud of my first grader. He is struggling to cope with not only the rigors of a full school day as a first grader, but also the anxiety and literal/rigid thinking of autism which makes new, loud, chaotic, big things super scary.
When these types of things happen, dear Reader, I note that MY stress response also spikes. I may not lose the ability to interface with the world for the rest of the day as in years past, but I find myself incredibly anxious. It’s anxiety by association. And parentage. Which is okay, and possibly more than okay in that it allows me to see a glimpse of what it’s like for my boys.
Empathy leads to understanding. Compassion fosters love.
Here’s to a decent second day of school.