anxiety,  autism,  Education,  high school,  middle school

Doing the same things and expecting different results

J had such an awesome week that he earned a trip to Tim Hortons!

So I have this recurring nightmare. I’m in college, I’m weeks away from graduation, and suddenly I realize that I’ve been signed up for a math and didn’t know about it. I show up for the first time, knowing that even if I do everything I can in the class for those last few weeks, I’m not going to pass the class. I don’t know any of the material and I’m too far behind to catch up. The fact that I missed all but two weeks of class automatically sets me up to fail the class as per department requirements. I have zero assignments turned in. Then I realize I’m not going to graduate. I’m not going to get a job because I didn’t graduate. I wake up sick to my stomach and have to remind myself that it’s been 14 years since I’ve gotten my BA and 4 years since I’ve gotten my MFA and I’m just fine.

When we talked to J’s principal this week, we talked about this kind of thing. Not college math classes or degrees, but the sense of drowning. We’ve been throwing every single subject and every single assignment at J (many times modified, although sometimes not) and he’s always coming home with hours of homework, including work that is far over his head because he hasn’t had the time to master earlier skills.

J needs more academic options and it turns out, that there’s a lot of things we can do.

We’re still waiting to meet with J’s high school to see what academic tracks and options are available when he transfers over next year, and I’m still not exactly sure what our plan is going to be, but I came out of our meeting with J’s principal feeling a little more at peace.

I’m so used to looking at J and the problems he faces–anxiety, behaviour, and attention issues–the autism way. I’m used to looking at clocks in a classroom, objects or numbers in a room that could be triggers and sensory issues that could contribute to J’s anxiety, behaviour, and attention problems. I’m always trying to come up with creative solutions (like mandala colouring books and reward charts and brain break options that give him opportunities to work on his proprioception and motor challenges). I’m always trying to decide if we’re on the right meds and dosage. Because that’s how I’ve been trained to live with and parent a kid with autism. I have to look for the atypical triggers that are associated with my atypical kid. I’ve learned this way of thinking from J’s doctors, OTs, SLPs, and anyone else who closely works with autism.

But the visits with my mom and the principal made me realize that there might be a possibility that his anxiety, behaviour, and attention problems could be coming from “normal kid” problems too. As my mom noticed, J is drowning in homework, gets frustrated, and tunes out after we’ve been working on it for long periods of time. As the principal pointed out, most of us have probably remember a time when we were in school and we didn’t understand something or started falling behind in a subject, resulting in frustration and embarrassment. How for “normal kids” that sometimes looks like acting out or defiance. How feeling overwhelmed and behind breeds anxiety for anyone.

I’ve been there before. That’s why I have that recurring dream. I know it’s a build up of years upon years of my insecurities in math. Even though I’ve never used anything higher than grade 5 math in my adult life, I struggled all through junior high, high school, and even my 1st year of university in math and that anxiety is still trapped in my subconscious. I was a smart kid but dumb at math and I hated it. So yeah, when J’s principal suggested that every kid can feel self conscious when they’re drowning academically, I could totally relate to that.

Together we bounced around ideas: monitoring J’s homework load, adjusting test/assessment expectations, considered schedule adjustments, options for class audits, a more direct focus on math and English. I’m not exactly sure what the final picture will look like. We still need to talk to J’s high school. But for now, I felt like we can do this again. That we can think of ways to make things work for J. Because right now he’s pretty darn miserable (and so are we).

This week I shifted my strategy (because anything’s got to be better than the way things have been going). After school this week we focused on math and English. J had a French test this week and I found out the day before that while we studied 30 or so vocab words, only a few of those would be on the test and the majority of the test was going to cover other areas like greetings and pronouns. I had to tell myself, “well, he’s going to bomb that one and it’s okay. It’s not worth the stress and anxiety for him to all of a sudden ditch everything he’s studied just to cram in a bunch of stuff he won’t be able to master enough for a test in a few hours.” J also had a history test too this week and I had to tell myself, “well, we’re not going to study for that because we need to make sure we know every step really well in simplifying equations with negative exponents for math this week.”

And incredibly, J’s been a much happier kid this week because of it. He’s been much better behaved at school. In fact, he handled an entire video this week in math class where his trigger word “numerator” was said over a dozen times without having a meltdown or leaving the class (which is a HUGE thing). When we studied math and practiced reading he was so much more willing to work with me because he didn’t have homework AND studying to do. By the end of the week he was able to earn a reward at home and at school for handling hard things and sticking to his work. Part of the reason I wanted to up his meds a few weeks ago was because it was getting so hard for him to pay attention during our long homework sessions. Maybe it wasn’t just his ADHD. Maybe it was just too much homework and too many late homework sessions. Maybe instead of adjusting the dosage, we needed to be adjusting other things.

I’m not naive. Life with J–life for J–has been hell this last month. I’m not going to pretend that one good week from J means we’ve found the answer and is going to fix everything. But I can’t help but think it’s a part of the answer. He’s in middle school, headed to high school next year. The stakes just keep getting higher. J can’t do it all–and he might not ever be able to do it all. I’m starting to wonder, in all of these years we’ve been working the autism triggers angle, if we’re forgetting that he’s a kid just like other kids in a lot of ways and we’ve been ignoring “normal kid” triggers too. Feeling pressure from adults, not wanting to feel stupid, having too much to do all the time. Those are heavy crosses to bear too. Then just add anxiety, autism, and ADHD on top of that.

My dad’s favourite saying is “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” Our lives have definitely been insane this last month–the whole middle school experience has been that way. Yes, there are a myriad factors I know of and don’t know of. I said last week that when you live with a kid with autism, every so often you get that kick-in-the-teeth reminder that your kid isn’t in the same place as everyone else and it’s a hard pill to swallow when you’ve been fighting so hard to make the world an even playing ground for him. It doesn’t mean you stop trying though. You just have to adjust the game plan again. You might have to let somethings go.

The waters have grown. There are bigger expectations in middle school. More homework. Classes go at a faster pace. It’s that way for every middle school kid. But maybe we can find ways to make J’s load a little lighter so he can stop sinking and start swimming again.





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