It’s been a common refrain around our house recently. I’m not in denial. I can see it. I can see it in his face, his hands, and the way in which he’s disconnecting more than before. Some days it’s at bay. On others it’s a slow burning fire that just eats away at him little by little. Other days it rages from within and consumes him.
His developmental pediatrician mentioned it. His former OT says she sees it. Now, his teacher brought it up, too. It’s there. My sweet baby feels it, even though I wish with all of my might that he didn’t. It’s anxiety creeping in to our picture. It’s anxiety fueled by the sensory processing challenges that seem to never end for my sweet boy. He encounters a situation that overwhelms him – like a vacuum or cutting his nails – that is too much for his little nervous system to handle, so he then fears that situation in the future. It creates an atmosphere of fear and anxiety around his little preschool frame.
It began with a his most recent follow up with his developmental pediatrician. He noticed that Jack’s sensory issues were creating such anxiety in his life that it was causing my boy a lot of distress. It was something so simple – a document printing on his desktop printer – that was sending Jack over the edge and which left my boy nervous the rest of the appointment. He recommended beefing up Jack’s sensory diet, putting a renewed focus on sensory integration, and then reevaluating the situation at our next 6-month follow-up. I agreed.
Then came an OT session in which Jack’s former OT was going to fill in for his current therapist. She noted that he just seems anxious these days. All I could do is nod in agreement.
Finally, on the heels of a very difficult couple of weeks at school, Jack’s teacher mentions it. He just looks anxious in class. He’s on edge, jumpy, and quick to react to changes in a negative way, even more so than usual.
I listened. I heard. I also felt a slight twinge of sadness for my boy, because I have been in his shoes. I don’t have autism, my sensory issues pale in comparison to his own, and I never experienced the challenges with simple communication that he does, but I know anxiety. I have battled anxiety for most of my life. While Jack’s anxiety revolves around the concrete experiences – sensory stimuli – mine was always about the abstract concepts and the “What Ifs” in life.
While our anxiety may not have the same trigger, I know just how it makes you feel. The lump in your throat. The twisting of your stomach. That feeling of fight-or-flight. Increased heart rate. It wears you down. It makes you feel ill. As someone who has suffered in the past from panic attacks – which are thankfully under control at this point in my life – and an anxiety disorder, I feel for my boy because I know just how debilitating anxiety can be. It’s not something that I would wish upon anyone. It’s also brought the reality of Jack’s SPD down to a level that I can empathize with in a very real way, because unlike watching him meltdown and lose control under the strain of it all – as he does from time-to-time – I can look at the fear in his eyes and know what that feels like.
I know that fear.
The question is, what do I do about it? Immediately, I can boost his sensory diet. I can make sure that he’s getting the input and support he needs throughout his day to help keep him calmer. That may mean building in more time for everything, more breaks, and more patience, but that’s okay. We do what we’ve got to do.
I can also help steer him away from situations in which Jack will have trouble coping. It only takes a single bad experience for Jack’s perception to be seemingly forever tainted by it; he says “no cut nails” (or “no hut nails” in Jackese) every single night before bath time, as though he’s just trying to confirm that it won’t happen. He says “no vacuum” whenever I open the laundry room door, which is where we keep the offending household item. While I can’t control all situations, particularly those at school, I can make our home and family time a safe haven for Jack. I can surround him with the input he needs and provide him with a respite from the stimuli that is just much too much for him.
I can do this because I know what anxiety feels like. I’ve seen it and walked around in it’s shoes. It’s no picnic, but it has given me perspective. It has made me appreciate the value of safe spaces and places where you can just relax and be yourself. As his mother, it is my job to make sure that those safe spaces exist for my son under my roof. If nowhere else, Jack should feel at ease in his own home.
While he may not understand it now, I know he’s not alone. I’ve been there, too. It’s for different reasons and different flavors of anxiety, but I’ve felt it, too. I can hold his hand through it and advocate for him and let people know that pushing him to the point of a meltdown or shutting down his painful for him. I can say that because I’ve felt that crush of anxiety. He may not ever appreciate that connection with his mother, but I will.
Maybe, in a strange twist of fate, that makes me uniquely equipped to be his mother. Maybe I really am the best Mom for him after all.