Sarah Zucca MS, LPC, CADC
New Year. Renewed Hope.
I will be honest. My anxiety with returning to school has been bad. Really bad. I enjoyed maybe four days of the winter break, and then came the crushing anxiety of returning to virtual education with having a child who has Autism. I know my children will continue virtual school, and my anxiety wishes I knew when that would end. My logical brain understands there is no definitive way to answer that question. We need to get through the holiday spread of COVID-19 to know when it will be safe to send the boys back to school, but my anxiety wants an end date. It is preparing for the already difficult transition that accompanies the return to school after a holiday, even during “normal” times. The difference this year is Mark and I will be responsible for the entirety of the fall out of that transition day and night compared to if schools were open for in person learning. We will not have the luxury of sending AZ to school and having his teachers and aid being responsible for the day-time transition difficulties.
My head has been spinning trying to come up with a reward system that will motivate AZ to engage in expected behavior during school. Before Christmas, I found a creative way to engage him, but I was less confident that I could come up with something after the holidays. Today I approached him with my idea for a reward system and after a few moments of silence he looked at me and said “okay.” This meant I had the buy in to the plan for rewards. Half the battle. The other half was getting him on board for school starting again. This continued to make my anxious mind spiral. What was the day going to look like on Monday? Would he refuse to do work? Meltdown? It is hard to put into words what our days look like sometimes, but all I can say is it is extremely rough. It is overwhelming and emotionally taxing to see your child struggle to this degree. It is hard to encourage him when I know the world is not right, and this is not how he is supposed to learn. But every now and then he surprises us and helps us have renewed hope.
After we finished dinner and making homemade ice cream last night, AZ called to me. “Mommy, can you come into the living room to help me?” AZ is eight, so this might seem normal and expected to others. To us, this was magic to our ears. Using a complete sentence in a calm voice is always a huge victory in our house and asking for help is an even bigger triumph. I stopped in my tracks immediately and went to see what he needed help with. What I discovered made my heart fill with pure joy. He had created a visual schedule of all the possibilities he could encounter in his day with school. Previously, to ease his anxiety, I was breaking up each day into the classes and expected activities (speech, specials, homework) and creating a chart to reward positive behavior. I am constantly trying to understand how his brain sees the world and best manages all that is expected of him. Last night, AZ asked me to help him make sure he had all the possible things he would have to do with the return of school. While we created the visual grid, he repeated our plan of earning five stars and then receiving his reward. Hearing and seeing this allowed me to let out a huge sigh of relief.
I am sure tomorrow will still be met with battles and avoidant behaviors at times. I am feeling a little less anxious because our hard work with creating a visual schedule and reward system seems to be sinking in and paying off through him initiating the tasks on his own. My goal always is to first set boundaries and expectations to help ease his anxiety, and then move towards cultivating independence. AZ gave me the best gift for the start of 2021: to see him initiating his own visual schedule on his own without any direction. I plan to share all the interventions, strategies, and tips that have helped us navigate virtual school during a pandemic for a child with Autism and ADHD, but for now I am going to celebrate in this huge victory and savor our renewed sense of hope for the return of school.