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.