The relief I feel after a successful school drop off in the morning is hard to explain.
For parents with neurotypical kids – I have one, so I know – the run to school is just a part of the day, most likely on the way to work, the gym or elsewhere. It’s an errand in my day as well, but I never take anything for granted when it comes to Carson and school.
The first day of this new school year is a great example. Anxiety is the enemy when it comes to Carson. It’s the root of nearly all problems with our kid on the spectrum. Despite two tours of the school and getting familiar with most of his teachers in summer school, he was filled with angst the first morning.
All seemed fine until we got to the school doors. He froze and clinched on to his mom for dear life. Panic mode was setting in. We have seen it before, and there’s no easy fix when he has so much internal turmoil. All hope for a fun and happy drop and roll – the goal each morning – was gone.
When he loses his composure and gets embarrassed, his parents are his safety zone. Breaking free from him outside without a scene was not going to happen. We spent the next hour trying to reason with him inside school so we could leave. Every time it seemed he was good, confirmed by a thumbs up, he would then chase after us. I had a few weak moments when I thought maybe we just start over tomorrow. Giving up would have been a horrible decision. It’s not even what Carson wanted. He was just in a bit of a crisis and had to be pushed through it.
Things were getting so tough (and not to mention hot) we had to get strategic, starting with getting Pam away from him. Carson’s favorite person is his mom, and she provides him comfort like nobody else. Pam loves hard. Her heart is huge, and she was not okay with leaving him in a panicked state. I did not want this outcome either, but it was time for desperate measures unless we wanted to spend the entire school day with Carson.
Since she needed to drop off something at the front office, the thought was to have her leave the room and me stay behind. It did not go well, but I was able to physically hold him back while she left the room. It’s heartbreaking to have to restrain him. It was needed at that time, though. There was no time to let emotions take over. Pam and I had to get out of the school so Carson’s adjustment could begin. He and his education team had to work through his anxiety without us.
Once he settled down, we went for a walk around the school. While we were walking, he kept reaching out to me. I tried to start building his independence by not holding his hand and just walking along side. We eventually settled on a game in the media center. He engaged with a teacher enough for me to slowly sneak away without him knowing. I’m sure once he realized I was gone he lost his composure again, but it had to happen.
I know how cold deserting him sounds, but these were desperate times. There was not going to be a calm, peaceful goodbye on this day. It was now an unrealistic goal. It was best to just get out of his sight and let the education team handle him. It’s a lot to ask on the first day of school, but difficulties should have been the expectation on the first day at a new school with many new faces.
Though I was hoping for a smooth transition, I understand Carson and his unique emotions. He needed to feel safe and in a place of trust. In his mind, safety and trust are built over time. It’s this transition period that can be difficult. We need to be there to help him while also pushing him beyond his comfort level when necessary.
Empathy is one of Carson’s greatest gifts to me. The other being perspective. Combining these two concepts provides me with a different outlook on everything. I think people who come in contact and share experiences with Carson feel the same way. I don’t know anyone who is not better off by time spent with our special boy. Though he’s non-verbal, he has a way of connecting. It just requires patience, time and effort.
As his parents, the constant mental battle revolves around how far to push him as far as expectations. He’s now 12 years old, and we as a family need to raise the bar a bit for him. Rather than taking a stuffed animal from home for comfort, a book would be better as far as social acclimation. This just one example.
I never want to sell him short. He’s capable of a lot. His maturation will continue. Our current strategy is to simply take everything case by case and day by day. Sometimes putting him in a potentially uncomfortable situation that could bring anxiety is just not worth the hassle. It’s why fireworks in a crowded place are not usually on our 4th of July agenda. Fear of his anxiety causing an unpleasant situation sometimes dictates what we do. On the other hand, part of growing up is pushing through obstacles in life that may be initially unsettling. Our job as his parents is to help him learn how to navigate his world and utilize learned tools to better manage his fears and anxiety. At this stage, independence clearly worries him terribly.
In the meantime, I start the day with the same goal – get Carson into school happy and ready to learn. If you see me walking back from school to my vehicle smiling in the morning, you know mission accomplished. After a rough start, the good news is he did exceptionally well the rest of the week.