Saturday, January 28, 2012

"I Just Don't Know"

Our younger son and I were waiting for his morning bus last week. It was freezing cold. We had just put his brother on his bus and had five more minutes of standing in the driveway before our younger son's bus arrived.

Five more minutes, friends, and I would be home free!

And, then he grabbed my hand.

"Um, mom, I don't really know how to describe this, but, ever since Christmas, I haven't really wanted to go to school," he said.

Oh, dear, this could go south very fast. I tried to remain calm as I said, "Well, buddy, what exactly is wrong?"

"I just don't know," he said.

That's his common response to a difficult situation. It is visible that he is feeling something, but more often than not, getting him to recognize and express those emotions to us is a process. That's part of the emotional deficit that comes along with his autism. He just can't understand and explain the nuances between emotions.

Asking a child like him 101 questions about whether he felt sad/mad/lonely/anxious or frustrated was pointless.

Putting on my psychologist hat, I probed into the nature of his feelings with the goal of resolving this issue before the bus rounded the corner. Happy, happy, happy. Everything must be happy, and we must get him on that bus!

Was he upset about the work load? The kids? The teachers? His therapists? The length of the day? I stretched his thinking--and mine--as best I could to tease out the issues so that he could step on that bus and feel better.

"I just don't know," is all he could say. He was completely incapable of thinking his way through his emotions.

Tic. Toc. Tic. Toc.

The arrival of the bus was imminent, and I was out of ideas. And then, out of the blue, he burst into tears. It was as though he couldn't hold his feelings in any more. Forget the bus! I hugged him and swept him back into the warmth of our home and situated him on the couch with his favorite things. And, I watched him, this child of mine who always seemed to hold everything in. Every fear. Every worry. Everything all locked up in that head of his until he buckles under the pressure one morning in the driveway waiting for the bus.

An unfortunate amount of children diagnosed on the autistic spectrum deal with some sort of anxiety. I had always suspected he had it. And, over the next few days to follow, it continued to overflow.

"Mom," he said, "I'm getting that feeling again like I got in the driveway." Then the waves of tears would wash over him.

"When you cry," I asked, "do your tears come straight from your eyes like they do when you skin your knee? Or, do the tears come from your chest as if you are scared or unsettled?" This was my feeble attempt from trying to decipher if he was sad or anxious.

Hey, I was trying!

"I just don't know," he answered.

Well, he may not be able to articulate it, but after a few times of watching him, it was pretty clear to me that this child was suffering from anxiety attacks. No third-grader should have to deal with anxiety attacks. And, yet, here both of my children have anxiety.

Our older son runs from his anxiety. When he is hell on wheels, we know he is feeling anxious. When he can't sleep and is up all night, anxiety is one of the culprits. Nervous energy. Pacing. Fervently vacuuming and tuning us all out. Definitely anxiety.

In his early years, our younger son was a nail biter. He also heard and announced every sound around him, asking for assurance that each one was okay. Everything makes sense now.

Often, along this path in autism, I feel so helpless in parenting my children.

And, at the same time, I am very thankful for the professionals in our lives who are committed to our children, their future and this cause.

This is life with autism.


  1. I know that we are so fortunate that Ben is "happy go lucky" over most things - because the few times when he has got really anxious about something (like his bike) have been really difficult.
    Did W get into school the next day or is this new anxiety stopping him going?

    1. I'm glad he isn't experiencing this!

      After the first incident, I called the school counselor, who is really good. She gave him an "easy start" to the day in her office playing some games until he felt ready to enter the classroom. We've had to do this every day since--and anticipate doing this every day in the near future. Forget about third grade curriculum right now. We're just concentrating on being able to cope with life. If he can handle school in addition to that, and sometimes he can, then great. We are also relying on psychologists and psychiatrists to better guide us in our understanding of him, how he's feeling and what we can do to help.

  2. Putting myself inside W is difficult, but I do remember clearly being anxious as a young child, maybe 5 or 6. Being anxious and having no idea why. I remember it being very physical and very frightening. I can't imagine not being able to express that to my mom, not even to know how. I do know that I didn't know what I was anxious about, but my mom eased me some by asking the worst case I could imagine. Then what would that mean etc...until I was prepared for whatever. Poor little man.

  3. I've had trouble with anxiety most of my life, sometimes to the point I sought help for it. I remember trying to explain to my parents what I was feeling when I was quite young. They were good parents, but this was just beyond their ability to understand. They were raised in the era of "suck it up, buttercup." I can only imagine what your sons must feel, and I'm so happy for them that you try to understand and can work with the people at school.

  4. Anxiety can be such a crippling feeling. I've been there far too many times. Allowing the boys to feel it and acknowledge it to the best of their abilities, as well as showing them that what they feel--no matter what it is--is alright, will help them a great deal. Acceptance of who they are, all of who they are, is such a wonderful gift. You may feel helpless sometimes, but your smiles, hugs, reassuring words, and willingness to bring your son back inside for all of those things really does help him. You've got this.

  5. So, all three od you seem to say the same thing: it is difficult to feine amd difficult to experience. yes, this has been life in our house recently. he had an episode during math last week. His teacher encouraged him to draw his feelings. So, he drew his bed, where he wanted to be. His head because it hurt, and tears. :( However, after getting the bad feelings out, he felt well enough to cotinue with the day. I am thankful at this point in time to be able to rely on that team effort.

  6. That is a tough one. You may want to have a teacher conference to see if she can shed any light on this.


    1. Lots of discussions, yes. Thanks for your input. let me know if you have any thoughts!

  7. Amy, you are "a brilliantist", as we say in our home! I don't know if you worked and worked to come up with these solutions, or if they just come natural, but they are great!

    "Forget the bus! I hugged him and swept him back into the warmth of our home..."

    "When you cry," I asked, "do your tears come straight from your eyes like they do when you skin your knee? Or, do the tears come from your chest as if you are scared or unsettled?"

    1. There's Mike! I've missed you! And, thank you for those kind words. I don't know, maybe you just learn to think a different way once you've parented thkids like this for a while.We go about thing here no where near the normal mammer! As for swooping up my cryng child and taking him back into the house, well, I'm a mama bear protecting her cub. :)

  8. Pop over to my place if you have a minute, Amy. It's award time *grin*