anxiety,  autism,  middle school

J verses the tornado

The funnel cloud captured by my friends Jamee and Kelley Larson.

I was anticipating things to get rough with J; the end of the school year is always a cataclysmic event. J’s anxiety breaks the charts because change equates the unknown and the modern day saber-tooth tiger response “is strong in this one.” J had already had a rough bout the week before, having a severe panic attack over the time “2:47 pm”. “2:47 pm” has haunted him all year, but with the end of track, the end of school, and everything else going on he just couldn’t deal with “2:47 pm”, resulting in an epic meltdown—the kind where I get a call from the school and I have to bring him home early.

I don’t know how the number phobias develop—if something bad happens and then J assigns a number to the event, or if he seeks out a number because he’s feeling insanely anxious and he has to channel that anxiety somewhere. It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg. You could go around in circles forever trying to figure it out. I’ve talked this over with J’s therapist. I know I won’t ever understand J’s logic because it’s not logic at all. It’s the response to a faulty switch in his brain. But my brain wants to—almost needs to—figure it out, because if I could make sense of J’s illogical dots and connect them somehow I could help him. We could eliminate this whole phobia thing altogether.

The last day of school arrived Friday morning, and I followed J into school to help him bring in a few extra things (at the end of the school year we try to thank all the teachers that work with J with a little present), and as soon as we got into his check-in room, J dissolved into a full-fledged anxiety attack.

“I’m not going to have 2:47 in my schedule next year, right? Right!?” he started, as if trying to bait his own meltdown.

We tried all of the strategies we could think of. We tried ignoring the question, diverting the topic, acknowledging 2:47 and saying that “it’s just a glitch, and you can handle it,” a body scan, everything. Nothing worked. I even texted Steve (who was in the car) to come in and help and we spent a good 10-15 minutes trying to calm J down who was sobbing and yelling and sobbing again. At one point Steve and I were debating on coming to pick him up in the early afternoon so J could avoid 2:47 pm altogether and end grade 7 on a good note, but then realized that would set a bad precedent for the next year. J’s one of those kids where you have to really stand your ground against the anxiety. If the anxiety wins, your battle will be 100x worse the next time.

Finally J decided he would handle it and fight through the glitch. We left, and an hour later texted to see how J was doing. Good news—he was handling it. In fact, he was now having a great day.

I went home and finished some projects I wanted to get done before the kids were out for the summer. Steve came home early that afternoon too (he teaches summer classes and decided to finish his work at home that day). Late afternoon, an hour or so before after school pickup, I was in the middle of painting our bedroom and I heard the weather sirens go off.

The view from our backyard when the sirens went off. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. I didn’t know at this time that a funnel cloud had been sighted in Moorhead, Minnesota, right across the river.

Sirens? Really? It wasn’t the first Wednesday of the month (when they test the sirens). I looked out the window and didn’t see anything. The sky looked rainstorm cloudy, but not severe weather/tornado cloudy. I know what tornado cloudy looks like. We lived in Kansas for 3 years.

I kept on painting, not really thinking anything of it. My phone hadn’t gone off with a weather alert. Steve had checked the TV and there wasn’t any weather coverage for our area. Then I set down my brush. I yelled to Steve downstairs.

“Steve, it’s not 2:47 pm is it?”

Sure enough the sirens started going off at around 2:47. Crap! I thought. Just crap! J’s going to hear this happen at 2:47 and 2:47 will be the biggest beast of a phobia for the next forever. J knows the 1st Wednesday drill. This is an unexpected drill. This is bad. Really bad.

Steve texted the school and got the message, “Come get J now.” Great, I thought. J’s having another epic meltdown and we didn’t even get to the end of the school day.

Steve drove straight to the school and a few minutes later I get the alert on my phone:


Now I was freaked out. Steve was at the school with J (who could be inconsolable for all I knew). The school has no basement. How was this going to work out?

Twenty minutes later Steve came home with J and W (10 minutes before school was supposed to end). J was beaming, “I had a great day, mom! I handled the tornado drill!” Steve confirmed that J did have a great day, and that when he had gone to the school, J was a little anxious but doing okay with the rest of the entire school hunkered down on the bottom floor.

J handled it because he didn’t know everything that was going on. J didn’t hear the sirens inside the school building. J didn’t know that a tornado did touch down for a minute in Moorhead (our sister city across the river). He didn’t know that the whole school district held the buses and would keep the kids until 3:45 (a full twenty minutes after J’s release time). He didn’t know that elementary kids who were on their way home on their school buses were sent back to the school for safety purposes. J just thought it was another practice drill. If J had that knowledge of all of those things associated with the time they were happening (2:47) it would have really traumatized J severely—much, much, more than 2:47 phobia already does.

Sometimes I look at moments in our life with autism and I think, “I couldn’t make that up if I wanted to.” What are the odds of the tornado sirens going off around the time of 2:47 pm anyway? When 2:47 is already “tainted”? On a day where J’s anxiety couldn’t be worse? We really dodged a bullet that last day of school. We’re really lucky things turned out okay.

Keeping up on the local weather updates.

I think of Friday and I wonder how often this happens to all of us in our day to day lives. Where we get upset because things are bad—we may even think they’re awful, but somehow we weather the storm without really knowing or seeing the other elements that would really break us. I wonder how many times we move in an insulated bubble of tragedy or hardship—feeling just enough to make us feel uncomfortable, worried, and anxious when we’re really on the edge of something much worse. It’s probably better we don’t see everything that’s going on in our lives. That we don’t know all the elements at play. Even if at first glance we think it would help us make better sense of the world.

The truth is we all have a little saber-tooth tiger trigger in all of us.

I guess sometimes not knowing the how and why of everything isn’t so bad after all.

You can read all about Friday’s weather excitement here. Bring on summer!

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