anxiety,  autism


J in kindergarten, W in preschool. It breaks my heart a little to know how much stress and worry this little guy had–even at the very beginning–about the world around him.

At a very young age we’re taught about the significance of certain symbols around us. We expose preschoolers to the alphabet by focusing on the first letter in their name (S was my favourite letter for a really long time as a kid). We teach toddlers about numbers by focusing on their age.  When you ask a toddler “how old are you?” that little baby face–that doesn’t know anything about quantity or numbers–will proudly offer a few fingers to you and reply, “I’m three.” We teach kids that letters and numbers have personal associations before they have actual meaning. When I was little, I didn’t care if an “S” said “sss.” It was my letter, because it was a part of my name. When I turned from four years old to five years old, I didn’t really know that the earth had rotated another 365 days since I had been born. I had a new number, and that new number was going to be my new favourite number.

Most of us grow out of those personal associations and embrace the new, functional meanings for numbers and letters. An “S” isn’t just for “Sarah,” it’s for nouns like “seal,” or adjectives like “slippery,” “shiny” and even verbs like “skating” or “swimming.” The number 5 expresses quantities like “five cupcakes”. Even though most of us transition nicely to these new functional associations, I think most of us, on some level, still maintain personal and emotional meanings to letters, words, and numbers (my favourite number–like every kid growing up in the 80s in Edmonton–was Wayne Gretzky’s 99). We may even develop or retain negative associations with letters or numbers (how many of us out there have sworn we’d never name our kid a certain name, because we had negative associations with a person with that same name?). When I was in elementary school, I had my own little phase with negative association with numbers. While learning about superstitions in school, one of the kids in my class told my that I had to be bad luck because my birthday was October 13 and that 13 was a bad luck number (we also focus on birthdays in elementary school because it teaches about seasons, and months of the year, am I right?). I came home crying to my mom, who told me that 1) I was born on (Canadian) Thanksgiving day, so that was pretty awesome and that 2) 13 is a lucky number for people born on the 13th. Completely satisfied by that explanation, I went back to school, OWNING 13.

Then there are the kids that don’t grow out of those personal associations with numbers or letters. Like J. J caught on to numbers and letters VERY quickly. At two years old he could read to me every single letter on the Old Navy sign. Since he was learning about letters and numbers everywhere, he found numbers everywhere. In fact, that’s all he started to look for. He was obsessed with numbers and letters.

I’m not sure exactly when or why the phobias started to happen. It was sometime in elementary school. I have some suspicions as to why, although I’ve said this a thousand times before on my blog that I can never, truly, understand J’s anxiety-logic, because anxiety and logic don’t go together. My best guess is it has something to do with “the 100 day of school” curriculum. Since elementary school, J was taught to count the days of the school year. I know this was for purely academic intent–it gets kids counting big numbers–but for J it had such an emotionally disabling backfire. J could count to 100 before he went to kindergarten. So the number counting wasn’t a new and exciting experience for him. J started questioning what all of this counting was for. What was going to happen on the 100th day? (a big surprise! and surprise+anxiety=absolute terror).

J in his last year of preschool. W was a peer model in his class that year 🙂 J was phenomenally fast at picking up on his letters at such an early age.

J started associating the days of the school week with a specific number. Which meant if something bad happened at school one day, it wasn’t just a bummer Tuesday, it was school day number 27. If a practice fire drill happened on a Friday, it wasn’t just a Friday, it was school day number 58. One of the most anxiety-filled days J has ever had happened on the 87th day of school. J was in PE, when a real fire drill happened. The cooks in the cafeteria burned the cheese pizza, and J ended up outside, with the rest of his classmates, waiting for the “all clear” to come back in. This happened in grade 2. He’s fifteen and occasionally will still bring it up.

J’s in high school and he still continues that elementary school ritual of assigning numbers and monitoring the days of the school week. It’s a way to keep that anxiety flame alive and yet, at the same time, it’s oddly comforting for him. It’s a thorn in our side, because the “bad” numbers change all of the time. Sometimes, because something bad happened on a 33rd day, or sometimes because of another outside-of-school association with a number happened, we have a brand new bad number day. Sometimes, life is too good, and J decides it’s time to choose a bad number, because it worries him that nothing is going wrong yet. It’s that vicious anxiety circle I will never understand.

Friday was the 67th day of school. 67 has been a bad number for about a year now. It’s an interstate exit number J has developed a phobia around, and now that phobia gets to come to school too. J started warning us about the impending Friday before Thanksgiving even happened–that he was going to handle 67 like a champ. But 67 itself can be a moving target, because J’s anxiety build on whether or not on he can handle it or not. J gets so worried that he’s going to fail it almost becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

Monday, J announced to his para in Algebra that he was about to have a meltdown, so she got him to the special ed classroom where he did indeed have a full blown meltdown. After he had his meltdown, he pulled himself together and headed back to his next class. We were all really proud of him–he told the staff exactly what he needed and was able to find a safe place. HUGE win. We’re still not sure if the meltdown happened because it was the first day back from the Thanksgiving holiday or if he was starting to worry about the 67th day of school. It doesn’t matter, I guess.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday came with constant reminders that “I’m going to handle the 67th day.”

Then Friday came and he did, in fact, handle it like a champ.

I’m not sure if he’ll ever grow out of assigning school days specific numbers, and even if he does, I know there will be some other obsessive ritual that will take its place. That’s the battle I’ve long stopped worrying about. Anxiety is anxiety and it will never go away. But wins like last week (even including the meltdown) are still wins. They’re steps closer in being able to navigate life alongside anxiety.


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  • Lauren Parker

    Wow. That must be incredibly difficult for him. Numbers are everywhere! Your writing always opens my eyes to so many things I’ve never thought about. I’m so grateful for that. That is pretty amazing that he was able to alert his para, and those little faces are truly the cutest. Little J and W are so adorable!

    • sarahwbeck

      Thanks for reading, Lauren! Yes, numbers are everywhere, and I have dozens more number stories 😉 We are so excited about the progress he is making! Letting his para know and successfully getting to a place where he can figure things out is a pretty big deal 🙂