As soon as I figured out how to assign ringtones to numbers on my then-new phone a couple of years ago, I immediately assigned the siren tone to school. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it. Unfortunately, it goes off way too often. But the reason isn’t one you might expect – it’s not a teacher or staff member calling to say my son is in trouble or that he needs to stay after to finish up homework (the school has a policy of making students stay after if homework assignments aren’t complete). It’s Michael calling, saying his head or stomach hurts and he wants to come home.
When the calls first started coming two years ago, I would immediately get in my car and rush over to school to get him, thinking he was sick. But after two or three times of him feeling completely “fine” after an hour coming home, I started to look at other options. It turns out it was anxiety. When Michael was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, the psychiatrist also gave him an anxiety diagnosis, but I honestly didn’t think much of it. He didn’t seem nervous. And that’s the problem with anxiety – the person may look and seem absolutely fine, but on the inside, they are a mess. In Michael’s case, he would get so nervous about math class, that it led him to have stomach-aches, which then led to the calls home. Another problem with anxiety, is that you never know when it will strike. At times when I thought he would be nervous – such as when he was Joseph in the school Christmas play last year – he wasn’t. Instead, it can just a regular Tuesday where it looks like everything is going ok and he’s thrown for a loop. Worse yet, he can’t always identify what is making his anxious – although his default answer is usually math.
Michael’s not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in teens, with studies showing that up to 20 percent of all teens and 30 percent of all teen girls struggle with anxiety. Anxiety disorders include not only the generalized anxiety disorder that Michael deals with but also panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety.
To cope with his anxiety, we’ve pursued a number of options. He’s on a low-dose anti-depressant to help “take the edge off” as his doctor says. Michael also sees a therapist to help him self-identify when he’s feeling anxious and some tips on how to deal with it – such as deep breathing, writing in a journal, etc. He also has a de-stressor bag that he just started taking with him that is full of different items to help him calm down. As part of his IEP, Michael can also visit a special room in the school where he can bounce on a trampoline or just sit in the quiet and relax. I’ve also gone to school and talked to him, rubbed his back and he’s then decided he was ok to head back to class.
But even all of that doesn’t always work. Last Friday, the siren tone went off again and it was Michael, saying his head was “spinning” and he wanted to come home. I told him to lie down on the little bed in the room off the office and try some deep breathing and then call me again in 10 minutes. Less than 10 minutes later, the phone rang and he was asking again to come home. So I got in the car and headed over to school. He kept on apologizing and saying he was sorry and that this time, he really was sick. But within about two hours, Michael was back to his normal self, asking to play video games (I have a standing policy of not letting him have his iPad on days when he comes home sick from school.)
Days like last Friday seem to come in streaks. We can go for a month or so without any problem and then have two or three within a two week period. Since I’m a freelance writer, I set my own schedule so I’m able to run over and pick him as needed (this is the standing reason I give my husband whenever he starts making noise about me possibly finding a job with a more reliable income).
I’m hoping that as he gets older and continues with the cognitive therapy that Michael will develop the coping skills he needs to deal with his anxiety. Yes, his autism isn’t the easiest thing in the world to deal with, but he has set behaviors and definite likes and dislikes that we’ve gotten used to over the years. His anxiety is what throws our family for loops since it has not only led to him missing school, but also intensifies some of his autistic behaviors, such as rocking back and forth or flapping his arms. Anxiety is really that silent disability.
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