xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' Yeah. Good Times.: On anxiety, "passing," and fire drills

Saturday, April 20, 2013

On anxiety, "passing," and fire drills

It is a well known fact that Child 1 is not a fan of the fire drill. Our school's Principal knows that she needs to inform me the minute one is scheduled. Pretty much every single person who works at our school is aware of Child 1 and his issues with the fire drill. It's written into our IEP and will be a major topic of discussion at our Middle School transition meeting next week.

One day last week I arrived to pick up the kids about 20 minutes earlier than usual. I just happened to be really early that day, it was a concidence. I walk up to the school to find that the alarms are going off (so loud) and all of the kids are lined up on the yard. Some of the classes were still walking out when I got there so I must have arrived very closely to when it started.

My first thought was to be mad that a drill was scheduled and nobody told me. They know they're supposed to tell me when a drill is scheduled!!! But when I find Child 1's teacher, I ask "was this scheduled?" and he tells me it wasn't. Somebody must have pulled the alarm or something. A pulled alarm is the reason Child 1 has so much anxiety about these things, because it happened when he was in 1st grade and that was the beginning of his anxiety about them.

I find Child 1 sitting in the line with his class and I can tell from the look on his face that he is very upset. Poor kid is freaking out with anxiety and as soon as he sees me he starts crying. He leans into me and I hold onto him and I'm so glad that I happened to be 20 minutes early.

He asks me what happened. I say I don't know but probably somebody pulled the alarm, like they did when he was in 1st grade. He's still very much not okay but he's getting calmer and I can tell he's feeling better. We sit there for about another 10 minutes, and as we do, a few staff come by to see how he is, because, like I said, everybody knows about Child 1 and the fire drills.

I am struck by how they talk to him about it. They tell him "you're doing really well" and "see? it's not so bad." His aide tells me "he did really great when the alarms went off." As if the outward appearance of calmness is evidence that he's perfectly fine with the experience. Because NO. He's NOT doing really well. He is really really upset about this. This is his worst nightmare, actually, an unexpected fire alarm. How can they say he's doing great when he's so obviously not doing great??

It seems to me that the lesson here is for him to learn that regardless of how he feels inside, what's important is that he doesn't let anybody know about it. What kind of messages do we send when we tell people who are filled with anxiety and upset that they are "doing great" simply because they appear calm? Doesn't that teach them that they must appear calm at all costs? That must a really horrible feeling, and it reminds me of how my autistic friends talk about the strain of "fitting in." Of learning how to pretend to be "normal" so they can "pass," but on the inside it's a huge and oftentimes painful struggle for them. Some of my friends have spent a lifetime trying to "pass," while feeling horrible on the inside. This is unacceptable, this kind of painful struggle. We need to do better. If our goal is true autism awareness and acceptance then we need to do better.

I understand my purpose now is to educate the staff at the school, and the staff at his school next year, and of course that is what I will do. But my kids are always my first priority and my mom brain keeps getting stuck on "what if I hadn't been there?" I talked him through the experience, we found out what happened (somebody microwaved some lasagna for too long and it set off the alarms) and now he's doing okay. But if I hadn't been there he would have been on his own, full of anxiety, and surrounded by adults who just don't get it. And that's even more unacceptable.