As I’ve mentioned before, one of the most difficult parts of raising an autistic child is his inability to communicate with me. What makes this even harder is that I know it is just as frustrating for him as it is for me. Being unable to communicate how you’re feeling or what you want, must be incredibly difficult and confusing. One of the main tenets of therapy (and Catholic confession) is that saying something out loud helps you to become unburdened of it. Giving voice to a problem is often the first step towards rectifying that problem. Unable communicate (or perhaps even identify) what the problem is can only cause more pain and frustration.
My vacation has caused Connor no end of anxiety, a feeling he is unable to properly identify or explain. Instead he has shown me through his actions how he feels.
It began with him being a little anxious.
When we returned on Friday night from our brief vacation, Connor was already asleep in his bed. It was no surprise to me when I woke up Saturday morning to find him snuggled up next to me. I would have been surprised had he not been there! In fact, I was prepared for some clinginess, some whining, etc. all that day. But it never materialized. Sure, Connor didn’t want the fiance to go to the grocery store without him. And Connor hugged his legs as he stood in the hallway. But all I got were some lovely smiles and hugs, and then Connor was on his merry way.
I should have suspected that Connor was not as ok as he seemed given that he was having an overwhelming number of nightmares. Crying in the night, he’d run into our room yelling out “Mommy, mommy!!” searching for me in the dark. Then he’d pull my arms around him, tighter and tighter, as if there would never be a point that we could be too close.
Still, everything seemed fine during daylight hours. And when Monday morning rolled around, Connor was happy, even excited to go to school. We talked about school all morning and Connor animatedly ticked off which of his friends he was going to see that day. Hurrah for school!
But by the end of the school day, that anxious feeling that haunted Connor’s dreams had blossomed into full-blown anxiety. When I picked up him, he was cranky and eager to see me. At home he stuck pretty close to me for the rest of the day, alternating between happiness to be home and whining that he didn’t have my full attention.
It wasn’t until the next morning that we had our first panic attack. Sitting at the breakfast table Connor began to sob, hot tears rolling down his little face. “No school! No school….” he repeated, sounding more and more like a plea than a demand. His sobbing only increased as I tried to tell him it would be ok and his friends would be there with him. Connor just worked himself up more and more to the point that he ended up making himself sick.
And while I know that school is important and maintaining a regular schedule is important, I’m not about to send my child to school when he is that upset. I don’t care how important education is, one day of emotional and mental health is far more important.
As I told him he could stay home, his face relaxed but the tears took quite some time to stop. Connor then asked to go to bed, to go to sleep, which is so very unlike him that I began to worry that there was something physically wrong with him as well as his overwhelming anxiety. My own anxious feelings began to rise as I worried over my little child. His distress was palpable. And there was nothing I could do to reassure him, other than hold him in my arms as we lay in bed watching Thomas and Friends episodes.
Throughout the day we had periods when Connor seemed absolutely fine and periods when I couldn’t even use the bathroom alone. Having someone come into our house for his ABA therapy sent him into a tailspin, but going to see his Nana and Grandpa made him happy and giggly. Playing a game was beyond him, but going for a walk settled him down.
I didn’t know what would comfort him and what would set him off.
So yesterday we consulted a variety of our team members (I call them team members because all of us, parents, teachers, therapists, psychologists, family members, etc. are all in this together. We’re all on Team Connor.) about what we should do to help his anxiety. Sadly, the answer is there is no quick fix. There are a lot of steps we can take to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future, or at least his reaction to my absence isn’t this severe, but there’s no switch we can flip to make it better now. We just have to live life like normal.
For five days of vacation, we’ll have to spend at least double that amount of time trying to repair the damage our absence did. And like any good Catholic girl, I feel incredibly guilty over this. If Connor could yell at me or be angry at me, I would find that easier to bear. It’s the despair that I left him and the fear that I’ll abandon him again that is killing me. When he clutches to me, with tears rolling from his big eyes, I want to join in! I want to promise that I’ll never leave again. I want to promise that everything will always be ok.
But I can’t do that. I can’t stop living my life. That would not be healthy for either of us. I can’t fix everything for him. I can’t protect him from everything. I can only prepare him. Even if it hurts me to do so.