Social events and stress

Frances started crying and melting down as soon as she entered the car on the way back from day camp yesterday. At first, there was no identifiable trigger: we had no idea beyond possible tiredness what could have been bothering her so much.

The meltdown continued all night: eventually, as she related the behaviour of the other day-camp children and begged us not to send her again, we knew that the episode had a social trigger. Being around the other children had been very stressful for her.

So, we had a dilemma, Pink Cup Dad and I: allow her to avoid a social situation because she finds social situations stressful and she misses the opportunity to practice the skills that would help to ease the stress in the future; make her go and we add to her stress.

The best that we can do in that situation is to wait until the following morning to see if her reluctance to go is still present and determine what would be in her best interests at that point. 

This is what we did. She woke easily and got ready to go with only the usual fuss this morning — there was no reluctance to go. 

So, once there, I quietly informed the camp workers that she had been having a hard time and asked them to call me if she were to find the day too stressful.

In the past, we have withdrawn her from day camps after only one or two days; at other times, she has coped well enough to stay the course.

So far, we’ve had no calls or texts this day. This doesn’t mean that we will avoid a meltdown this evening; it simply means that she’s coping until the end of the day.

You can’t tell…

At Frances’s birthday party a few weeks ago, one of the well-meaning coordinators remarked that she couldn’t tell that Frances has ASD. 

Well, being very high functioning does help her in public, but here’s one of the (many) things that people can’t see…

Frances won’t go into a room, or stay in one, by herself, and it has been this way for several years at home and at school.

She developed differently in that respect. As a toddler, she didn’t respond if I left a room, and she didn’t mind being in a room alone.

As she aged, this changed dramatically, and it affects her life profoundly. Now, at the age of nine, she follows me from room to room (even waits outside the washroom), and refuses to play if someone isn’t in the room with her. We’ve tried a number of ways to help her overcome her fears, but nothing so far has worked. 

High-pitched screams, nonstop crying, repetitive complaining and panic, prevent discussion in the moment; discussion outside the moment has not been remotely successful.

This week, we moved her dollhouse to the upstairs hallway so that she could play outside the rooms and not feel alone (and Pink Cup Sister, Pink Cup Dad, or I could still do our own things). It’s not ideal as someone always has to be upstairs, but it’s a minor improvement.

Because she won’t enter or remain alone in rooms, and she won’t sleep alone, she is my very cute, very constant companion.

She now has a behavioural therapist (who specializes in ASD) who comes to our home weekly, and we think that this could be a very positive thing. She has only had two sessions to this point, so it is too early to expect any changes.

Still, I’m hopeful because some change, no matter how small, always helps in some way.

Laser tag

I think the following is a good example of how a high-functioning child with ASD can really struggle.

Frances wanted to go to a classmate’s birthday party to which she had been invited because, in her own words, she doesn’t usually get invited to parties.

I worried about it beforehand for weeks because of her sensitivity to sound as well as her tendency to become overwhelmed by her environment in general. I was worried that any meltdown could put a damper on a little boy’s birthday party, too.

Yesterday, she went to the party. She participated in all of the laser tag games with the other attendees.

She stayed close to the father of the birthday celebrant during the games of tag, and close to me in the party room, and she seemed to have had a good time.

Unfortunately, the special vest worn during the laser game weighs about 5 lbs. — and it made Frances uncomfortable. Specifically, her shoulders were affected. 

That’s all that she could focus on during the rest of the party, and she mentioned it to anyone who spoke to her.

I just kept redirecting her attention to whichever activity was occurring — emphasizing that we had to let her classmate enjoy his party — and that’s how we made it through to the end of the event.

All in all, I’d have to say that it was her first time making it all the way through a party, and she did well.

This morning, she didn’t want to go to school (no surprise) because of the discomfort in her shoulders — so, I kept her home for a couple of hours. She wasn’t happy to go, but I’ll know at the end of the day if she was able to get some enjoyment out of being there.

Progress

School mornings are difficult for Frances. They typically involve huge meltdowns and outright refusal to go to school. We do get her to school (where she does well throughout the day), but not without a great deal of effort to get her dressed, fed, and ready to leave the house.

Today, everything progressed in a predictable manner until there was sudden silence: I found her in the living room, rocking herself in a rocking chair. Ten minutes later, she was still rocking. Ordinarily, the meltdown would last until the teachers took over, but we stood a good chance of delivering her into their care without tears!

I ran up the stairs to tell Pink Cup Dad that he had to take her to school NOW while she was still so calm (and he did).

Now, I’m looking forward to seeing if the rocking chair works for her tomorrow as well.

Flashing lights

I posted recently about how change can produce meltdowns.

Yesterday, there was a good example of how too much visual information can produce meltdowns.

At the hospital at which she had an appointment, there was a test of the fire alarm system. Unfortunately, this partly consisted of several lights silently pulsing.

At first, Frances tried to hide from the lights. Then, in a darker area of the reception space, she got distracted by stackable molded chairs and the opportunity to climb and to rock.

But a headache had set in for her and nothing seemed to help: removing glasses, avoiding looking at lights, crying.

She definitely didn’t want to go to school afterward.

We’re very accustomed to sound bothering her, but visual things overstimulate her, too.

(She actually loves light and is very drawn to anything that emits light, but, in this case, there was just too much and she couldn’t control it.)

Changes

I think people probably hear about children with autism being resistant to change, and, in our case, it’s true.

One morning this week, in order to get as much done at once before the children left for school, I decided to try to brush Frances’s hair while she ate breakfast.

She had an immediate meltdown: crying, screaming, and complaining to Pink Cup Dad that I’d interrupted her breakfast.

That was completely my fault: I hadn’t thought about the fact that brushing her hair during breakfast was something we’d never done before. 

She notices even the tiniest changes in an environment — whether it be her piano teacher’s studio, her school classroom, or home — and her reaction ranges from complete distraction to meltdown.

With Christmas approaching, I will have to put up decorations slowly, and there is a meltdown every year when I have to take them down.

When the presents are under the tree, it is just too stressful for her for there to be “objects everywhere”. 

On Christmas morning, we stagger gift opening, and we try to clean as we go along to minimize the visual stress for her. We do our best not to have guests on that day.

I think that Christmas brings just so much change for Frances — including the stress of anticipation — that, if I could, for her sake I would avoid it altogether.

She may enjoy Christmas without stress one day, but, at eight years old, Christmas (and the change that it entails) is difficult.

At the pool

Recently, a fellow blogger wrote about being the parent of the only child who is crying and screaming at the pool during lessons. It couldn’t have hit any closer to home!

When she was three, I signed Frances up at the local community centre for swimming lessons. From the moment she got there, she would scream and cry and not want to go in the water. I tried, week after week, to get her to take a lesson, but it was to no avail.

It made me anxious and worried and strangely isolated from other parents: why WAS my child the only child who would not tolerate being touched or being put in the water on a raft?

(This was years before any diagnosis was sought or delivered. We didn’t know that she had special needs.)

Other parents would politely offer suggestions, and I didn’t tell them of my suspicions that nothing would work.

I remember well the anxiety that would build in me as another mother suggested that Frances shower at the same time as her own child. Frances wailed, the poor kid, and was too afraid to try each time.

It wasn’t long before the pool staff told me that her behaviour was distressing to the other kids, that she was too loud and disruptive.

That week, I had Pink Cup Dad come with us so that maybe he could see something that I could not.

I’ll never forget the moment when he loudly declared his annoyance at the staff as our little girl sat crying on the ledge of the pool.

“If they’re not going to even work with her to help her through her fear, forget it.”

He walked into the pool area, picked her up, and we left the building. We never went back.

Sure, my child may be very high functioning, but she was the only child who wouldn’t stop crying and screaming at the pool. It might have been a different story had we known that she had ASD — we would have had her in a special-needs lesson — but you never know. You live and you learn.

(By the way, she loves the water now.)

Halloween 

We go out with pretty much the same group of people for trick-or-treating every year. Since Frances was old enough to know what Halloween is, she has insisted that we leave the group and that only she and I go from door to door.

This actually makes sense: gross-motor wise, there is the effort of keeping apace with others; emotionally, meltdowns slow her down; socially, she always chooses to be away from others.

This year? It was a little different. She ran — even out-running the older kids — from door to door. She did her best to speak. One little boy — the one she spent the most time beside — was on the spectrum, too, and they really did well alongside each other at the party afterwards. 

The worst that happened this year was that she lost the old, dirty stuffed animal that accompanies her everywhere, and her father took a flashlight and successfully retraced our steps in order to find it.

Before our arrival at the host house, she had had such a huge meltdown that I figured that I would be spending much of my time handling meltdowns while trying to signal “let’s leave” to my husband early on in the evening. That’s what usually happens at any social event.

But not this Halloween. We got through a big social event with just a few meltdowning moments. Her anxiety (for example, as she encountered the imagined possibility of anaphylaxis while watching a guinea pig), was evident but we managed.

Halloween wasn’t as difficult as it usually is, and, for me, that is success. 

The Beach

   
Recently, a fellow blogger posted a picture of his son on the beach, and I realized two things: (1) I don’t write about the beach, and (2) we don’t visit the beach very often.

When she was barely two years, Frances’s first excursion to the beach was uncomfortable: she cried whenever her feet touched the sand. The surface wasn’t hot, but she didn’t like the sensation.

When she was three, on her next trip to the beach, it was difficult because Frances was unaware of children trying to play with her and did not tolerate their attempts to play beside her. As a result, she cried often, and there were several meltdowns.

When she was four, we tried the beach again. At this point, we were 2.5 years away from a diagnosis, and a few months away from wondering if we needed one.

At the beach, as she poured sand out of a pail this day, I asked her to move over a few inches from a sunny to a shady spot. The meltdown that occurred, as she lay flat on her stomach, was loud and prolonged; other parents stared and shook their heads. I was quietly alarmed mostly by the fact of the meltdown and its trigger. 

I honestly didn’t know what I was seeing, and I didn’t suspect that Frances had autism. Children have tantrums, but this seemed like more. I just remember thinking, “This isn’t typical, is it?”

In the above panel, she is eight years old, about 1.5 years after diagnosis, and happily enjoying the beach.