“First Day Butterflies” or “First Day Angry Dragons” in Your Belly?

Young people all over the northern hemisphere are starting back to school at this time. Locally, some school systems started last week, some this week, some next week. My 22-year-old son, who has autism, is going back to his third year at art school….and feeling anxious about the new beginning, to say the least.

This morning, I received a notice from the blog published by the Children’s Music Network (https://childrensmusic.org/), about a sweet song that my friend Dorothy Cresswell had written, called “First Day Butterflies.” http://blog.cmnonline.org/2017/08/22/first-day-butterflies-by-dorothy-cresswell-on-tuneful-tuesdays/

I was so touched by Dorothy’s song and the stories of how she would greet her new students on the first day of school that I found myself with tears in my eyes. And I stopped to wonder why I was having that response. As I was wondering, my son came dragging into my office, breathing heavily, a look of deep sadness on his face. Ah, of course, I thought to myself, this is why: he doesn’t have “first day butterflies,” he has “first day angry dragons” that are raging around in his belly. And they don’t flare up just the day before the first day of school, they flare up anywhere between a week to three months in advance. Would that there was someone like Dorothy greeting returning college students to campus on the first day back to classes each semester.

Every new beginning brings on a fresh wave of anxiety for many people with autism. No matter how many times my son has done something, no matter how familiar the place is – getting there again, starting something again, walking into a room with other people AGAIN, still brings on waves of anxiety.

I am in awe of the courage he must muster every day to get up and go out and face the world again. Negotiating the vagaries of social interaction is exhausting for him. He tries and tries to get it right, and so often is shunned and excluded because he just doesn’t hit the culturally accepted mark of social interaction. Though he regularly reviews what the “right” thing to do is before he leaves the house, when he is out in the world trying to function, he often gets flustered and confused and his responses come out messy. And people are not very forgiving it seems when someone comes across as odd.

Anxiety is a huge part of both Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism. When your senses are not reliably delivering information to your brain, you feel very unsure of the world. As you get older, you hopefully develop some strategies and some experiences that let you know that all will be well in the long run. But unfortunately, for my son, all isn’t always well, and the confusion of trying to manage social interactions when you haven’t had a lot of success in the past just exacerbates the anxiety.

Current statistics place Sensory Processing Disorder as affecting one out of six school age children in North America, and it is probably similar numbers in other parts of the world. That is a lot of people who are struggling to handle the world with “angry dragons” in their bellies. I always thought butterflies in my belly were bad enough, but I know that the intensity that my son experiences is far harsher than any kind of “first day butterflies” that I ever did.

So to all of the educators out there, thank you so much to those of you who know how to help children over their “first day butterflies.” Let’s all be aware that some people have “first day angry dragons,” and let’s be kind, patient and tolerant when someone’s responses are a little different. Perhaps they are in the midst of battling a dragon.


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19 Responses to “First Day Butterflies” or “First Day Angry Dragons” in Your Belly?

  1. AvatarDeb says:

    A wonderful description (and prescription).

  2. AvatarBrigid Finucane says:

    Thank you, Joanie. You – and your sensitive accounts – always touch my heart deeply. Thank you, too, for the reminder that the gifts of kindness, patience, and tolerance should be freely given and never underestimated….

  3. Avatarmicah says:

    תמשיכי לכתוב
    כל הכבוד

  4. Dear Joanie: I love the image you created of the angry dragons. Being an avid Game of Throner makes me realiize just how powerful and terrifying a dragon can be. Thank you for helping the world understand the battles some on the spectrum face throughout their lives. My heart feels much fuller now, a it often does reading your blogs.

    • Joanie CalemJoanie Calem says:

      Hah! I have yet to see Game of Thrones (but my daughter is an avid fan) so I totally missed that I was keying in to that wavelength in pop culture! Good point…

  5. AvatarNancy Silber says:

    Thanks, Joanie. Words I will take to heart as both a parent and a teacher. Beautifully written, the imagery is poignant and so helpful!

  6. Dear Joanie,
    So appreciate your insights via a full heart of love and motherhood. Thank you for your reminders
    ” to be kind and patient and tolerant when someone’s responses are a little different.” What a different world
    it could be, if we all got on board with that!

  7. I’m sharing this blog with the teachers I work with. It is informative for even the seasoned teacher and we all need reminders about how important it is that our message include all the possibilities that students bring to the classroom.
    Thank you, Joanie, for sharing your personal experience so eloquently! I’m so glad to be part of the Children’s Music Network, without which I would never have met you!

    • Joanie CalemJoanie Calem says:

      Carole hi,
      I also do teachers’ workshops on this exact topic, and you can send people to my website to read more about the teachers’ workshops. Thank you for sharing….and yes, CMN leads us to wonderful people, like you for me!

  8. AvatarSusan Salidor says:

    As I read, I thought back to my classes this morning and the children I informally identified as having sensory issues (I had brought both my Uke and djembe). I appreciate and need this reminder as I head back into my preschool classrooms. Thanks, Joanie. Xo

  9. Oh Joanie, I’m blinking back tears as I think of the special college students who have raging dragons to deal with as they face yet another first day. Your open mother’s heart just opens all of us to be more aware of the inner tumult and the courage they are mustering, whether they are short or tall.

  10. AvatarJudy Avisar says:

    so beautifully and sensitively expressed Joanie….may it be published in a teacher’s magazine!

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