It’s a sunny August afternoon on the playground and you are sitting on the grass under the trees. You’re watching your children splash and play in the wading pool and run around the playground in sheer delight. You smile as you watch them play, but then something catches your eye. You pick it up and turn it over gingerly in your hands, and the sparkle in your eye disappears. Funny, that a single red leaf could do that.
You used to love the autumn. The sweet smell in the air, the colourful leaves dancing in the wind, the pumpkin lattes and cozy sweaters. You still do love all of those things – fall is still your favourite season. But something is different now. When you are at the store and see a Mom shopping for school supplies with her children, you cringe. When the days on the calendar start passing and the days nearing to September, you feel anxious. And you know as well as I do, sometimes back to school breaks your heart.
It’s the little things that people who don’t know autism miss. The ones who have kids that just shove the supplies into their bags and don’t carefully cross check items in their bag with the provided, checking again the week before school starts. And again once more the night before school, just to be sure. As if having everything on the list will calm their anxious minds – and yours – about what is to come.
Because we know what is coming. Back to school isn’t as carefree and beautiful as it could be. After many weeks of having children at home, most parents look forward to the return of school. And you sit here, reading this with conflicting emotions. While you are ready for the break that school provides, you wonder if you are ready for the stress that comes with it. The phone calls from the school when your child misbehaves. Endless meetings to keep them on track. Packing lunches for a picky eater. Managing morning meltdowns and still getting your child to school on time. It’s not so beautiful and carefree for the autism Moms.
I know, because I have been doing this song and dance for a very long time. And every year when back to school starts, I get a little bit jealous of my friends who send their kids off with their extra full backpacks and carefully packed lunches. Friends who I imagine sit back with their hot cup of coffee and let out a huge sigh of relief before they head off to work or get started on the task ahead of them. I used to be that Mom – until I was called to remove my child from school on his very first day. Now, I always wonder if it will happen again, so I hold my breath until he walks through the door in the afternoon. A ball of nerves and anxiety, jumping every time the phone rings.
Back to school breaks my heart sometimes. After a long summer with my children (which provides its own kind of stress), I am ready to send them back, but my heart breaks with the though of what is to come. Now, before you try to label me as a Negative Nelly or a Debbie Downer, just know that with two children under the autism umbrella I have pretty much seen and experienced it all. I’m not jaded, but I am cautious. I like to guard my heart because it’s been broken a lot, and it will be broken some more.
But here’s the thing – I have a list of things to remember when I feel like back to school is breaking my heart. It’s a list I like to pull out when something has happened and my kid has messed up again. It’s a list I like to pull out when I am feeling overwhelmed. It’s a list I need to have on hand before intimidating meetings. It’s a list I thought you might like to have too.
You and your child are in the hands of a loving God. Nothing is out of His control. This is sometimes hard to remember when you were in the middle of something and you have to stop, drop everything and run. This is often the last thing you think of when you are sitting at a table with several people who are debriefing you on what your child has been up to. But this is the most important, most powerful thing to remember. Whatever you are facing, God is there. While we may not think a school suspension is a good thing, we need to remember that God can use all things for His purpose. When we look over our own lives, a lot of the negative experiences that we have encountered have shaped us into who we are today. It’s the same for your child – whatever they might experience will allow them to change and grow. Especially the difficult, hard situations.
Your child’s behaviour is not a reflection of you or your teaching. I often chant this as I am en route to a sticky situation. When my kid has messed up and I am dreading facing the teachers or staff waiting for me to arrive. It’s a hard lesson that I have had to learn over the years. You see, I KNOW that I don’t teach my children when things are going south to just throw a few punches. It’s so discouraging when they do the opposite of what you teach them. I remember crying to my mother on the phone on the way to the school one day and I said, “so many hours of intervention, lessons and love and he did THIS.” My mother has fielded many of these calls (and if we are being honest, will probably get her fair share this year) and she always listens and reminds me of this precious gem. “Your son’s behaviour is not a reflection of you or what you are teaching him. So wipe your tears and walk in there with confidence.” It’s safe to say that the school knows this is the case, and it hasn’t crossed their mind that you might possibly be a maniacal deviant. And here’s the thing – they don’t think your kiddo is either. Which brings me to my next point…
The school staff want what is best for you and your child. They are trying to help you. I am not going to be naive and suggest ALL staff is loving, kind and has the best interests of your child in mind. Yes, I know this is true because I have been there a time or two. It is safe to say, however, that people don’t decide to work in the school system because they want to become millionaires. Generally, they really do love and care about children and educating them. It is important to note that in certain school systems who have integrated educational structures where children with special needs learn along side their peers, it can be quite stressful for one classroom teacher to educate the whole class at their learning level. In these cases, you will likely meet the magical people who have chosen (yes, CHOSEN!) to work with special needs children day in and day out. If your children ever have the chance to work with an educational assistant (teacher’s aide, educational helpers, etc) – make sure you take a minute to thank them. I could write about this all day, but let me just say this: they are EVERYTHING. In the run of our children’s school careers, their EA’s have been bitten, kicked, painted, covered in food, screamed at and more. There it is, the secret is out – parenting autistic children is not glamourous. At the helm of all of this are the resource teachers who work endless hours at school and in their homes to make sure that every avenue has been explored so that your child can be successful at school. If educational assistants are magical, then resource teachers are the unicorns. They are patient, loving, kind, helpful, hard working, and go over and above to make school work for your child. So when you are rushing in to a situation, and you’re a bundle of nerves, remember they are doing the best they can. Take a deep breath and try to sparkle as much as they do.
Be gracious, kind, and helpful – even when it’s difficult. I have learned this the hard way. We once had a situation occur that left our son on isolation for pretty much the entire year. He rarely was in the classroom. It was so heartbreaking to see him isolated. Every meeting I attended I felt sick, and I can’t even tell you the number of times I felt like maybe I should just throw in the towel and homeschool. I felt like my voice wasn’t heard – and one fateful day – I made sure it was. It’s not a pretty picture either, so I won’t describe it eloquently. I was standing in the hallway, yelling at the person in charge at the top of my lungs at the end of the school day. I think the whole school heard me. Okay, maybe the whole neighbourhood. It was awful, it was ugly, and I have regretted it every day since. My grandfather said “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar,” and as we were walking home that day that line kept running through my mind. That year was such a hot mess that the next school year I decided that no matter what the situation was, I was going to be better. I might not be able to control everything in this autism life, but I sure could control myself. I hope that I have been gracious, kind and helpful since. If not, that is why I have this on the list to remind me. Long story short – when things get ugly, I don’t have to be!
Always stop to take a deep breath, pray, and remind your child they are loved. This is so, so important. People often ask me how I manage to deal with having two autistic children and still seem positive and put together. (Let me just say, they don’t see me at my house at 6:45 a.m. on a school morning when my kids are screeching like hyenas and I’m just trying to get it all together!) The real answer, though, is Jesus. If I ever seem positive or put together, it’s because the Holy Spirit lives in me and gives me the wherewithal to do this life. God is just so good to me. When I get a call or an e-mail or a text that something has happened, or something needs addressing – I always need to stop and take a deep breath and pray. It doesn’t have to be long. Sometimes I do this while the phone is ringing in my hands before I press the button and start talking. But God knows what I need, and it makes me feel better. If I have more time, I pray longer and more specifically – but I do rest in knowing that even if I don’t have half an hour to lay it all out there, He already knows and He is already waiting there for me.
The second part of this is to remind your child they are loved. In our experience, after our child has done something resulting in a phone call or note home, they feel terrible about it, and sometimes they feel like they are terrible because of what they’ve done. It is important to remember that children are not adults, and they can’t process relationships the way an adult can. While they are still growing and learning, they need to know that you love them regardless of the choices they make. I know there is a fine line in doing this, as the resulting behaviours and consequences need to be addressed, but when everything is all sorted – it is so simple and quick to remind them. It boosts their confidence and assurance that they don’t need to earn your love.
So there you have it. While you are printing off the back to school lists for supplies, why not print this off too? Tuck it away somewhere safe, or put it on your fridge. Keep it somewhere you can see it so you will be prepared for whatever the school year brings. I don’t know about you, but when I remember these things, back to school breaks my heart a lot less.