Bring on week two and the glow has worn off. The “best friend” has found a new friend during the holidays and the routine is new. The days get longer, the energy wears out quicker and the reality sets in, school is full of new challenges and changes. It becomes harder to “suck it up” and meltdowns begin, routines are reluctantly formed and new faces become a blur. Welcome to the reality of school life, similar to the rollercoaster of marriage, that when the honeymoon is over, maintaining equilibrium for many, is something that needs regular tuning.
When our oldest son Casey started school for the first time it was one of the biggest Aspie challenges that we had faced. Week two brought diabolical meltdowns, screaming, and relentless Lego bribes, just to get him out of the house. Everything was just too different, too difficult, too out of his comfort zone. The school was amazing and had an integration aide by his side to help, but the journey was not an easy one.
The second issue we needed to overcome was a sensory one. School is a very noisy place. Add singing classes full of out of tune five year olds to the highly-strung sensitive ears of my son and you have a guaranteed recipe for a meltdown. One by one we had to establish what would upset Casey and what would send him over boiling point. Which challenges we needed to face head on, verses the ones that we could just leave for now. We began to see the warning signs that he was not coping, usually hiding under tables, and try and give him some quiet time to unwind before he exploded.
The calm comfort of a regular teacher quickly dissipates as the new teacher is loud and is wearing a strong perfume. She walks around all the time and has too many facial expressions and words that don’t make sense. The anxiety jug starts to fill rapidly; all of his sensors are on high alert. The room is loud and the behaviours of those around him become too erratic. As the jug reaches full, adrenaline starts to surge as a fight or flight instinct starts to kick in. Step one is flight, under the table, it’s safe there, a good place to hide. But when a well-meaning friend or teacher disturbs his safe place, fight mode kicks in.
A violent uncontrollable yelling screaming child who resembles a wild animal emerges. Completely unable to control the adrenaline and instinct that has ignited in his body. There is no quick fix for a meltdown. Only time and patience as you wait it out and the body lowers it’s adrenaline and calms down. The resulting child is like an emotional puddle on the floor, completely exhausted, and very sad. The rest of the day is uneventful as all of his adrenaline has been burnt up and he’s just so tired. Until tomorrow, when it all starts again.
The promise of a trip to the Lego store, if he goes to school for the entire week, is enough, just enough, to make the stress of going to school attemptable. It’s really not easy though, and there were weeks and weeks of struggles and meltdowns before he was calm enough to face school without fear. The first week back to school after each school holiday was rewarded with a Lego set and by half way through the year, he was happy again. Settled and happy. Although four years on he still hates assembly. And singing.
Understanding the anxiety jug and looking out for the warning signs has made a huge difference in how we help Casey. Often the thing that fills up the last few drops in the jug and causes a meltdown isn’t the actual problem, it’s just the final thing that tips him over. If he’s not feeling well, even a slight cold, things also seem to boil over more quickly. So when he has a viral induced asthma attack, he stays home until he’s well enough and has the energy to cope with school life.
Resilience will come; we’re still working on survival. Making the first few years of schooling a positive one in my opinion is the most important thing. If they can fall in love with learning, they will become great students for life. Learning is something that we’re all still doing and having my three aspies has meant that I have been on a steep learning curve. I’m proud of my boys and know that with the right support and encouragement they will continue to have long happy post Schoolymoon years.