Category Archives: anxiety

Learning Through Play, What a Revolutionary Concept!

Last Wednesday was the last day I took Buddy to his old school. They told me it was no longer acceptable for him to come to school with his clothes on backwards. I also know they’ve been punishing him with time outs for toileting accidents, something that EVERY book on autism I’ve read has said not to do. Once that started happening I noticed a change in Buddy. He stopped wanting to go to school. I wonder if they got on to him for coming to school with his clothes on backwards because last Weds he was very withdrawn. But since he can’t talk to me all I have is speculation.

Thursday morning he was extremely reluctant to go to school. It’s usually not an issue. Unlike a lot of kids with autism, Buddy likes getting out of the house. I asked him if he wanted to go to school and he said “no.” In the past when I’ve asked he’d repeat, “school” which for him is a way of saying yes.

I took him to a playground instead. There were several other little boys Buddy’s age there, and he surprised me by joining in their game of Power Rangers. One of the mothers there had worked as a physical therapist at his old school and recognized him and she commented on what a good job he was going with the other boys. As we left I felt he benefited far more from those hours at the park than he would have at school. And that play? He wasn’t getting at school. But it’s the type of play he needs.

Friday I took the kids to visit my grandparents. And on Saturday when my parents came to visit, they found that Buddy had come out of the shell he had been in for the past few months, ever since they started the time outs at school.

Monday we started his new school. When I picked him up, he proudly showed me the truck he was playing with. His case manager said he’d done well and he won a game of musical chairs. Today when I went to pick him up I saw his therapist engaging him in a long, back and forth verbal sequence (five turns). This is something they were able to do in two days with him that his school was not able to do in five months of being with him! In fact, his school had no idea how to engage him. They asked me once, and when I told them (find what he is interested in, play with him, and gradually bring him into your world) they dismissed me as being permissive and went back to doing what doesn’t work.

And Buddy just seems happier now. And we’re seeing more engagement from him. While driving home today with Buddy and Sissy in the back seat we got stopped by a train. Buddy pointed at it and looked at Sissy and said, “Look, Sissy! A train!” I rarely hear him talk to her expect at night when he says, “Night night, Sissy, love you.”

At home we were watching “Mary Poppins” and when Mary Poppins did her long twirl during the “Step in Time” sequence he got excited. I started wondering out loud if any of us could twirl as long as she could and gave it a try. After I tried, Buddy tried. Here’s the thing, Buddy rarely imitates what he sees on tv. But as the show went on he started dancing more and imitating the movements. Later as I was doing dishes he started singing “Old MacDonald.”

I don’t think his new school has wrought a miracle so much as I think his old one was really stressing him out. And what I want to emphasize was that he was in pre-school. Pre-school was stressing him out. And further, is was inhabiting his growth when it should have been encouraging it.

And here’s the thing, it’s not just parents of children with autism experiencing this. Kids today are more anxious and at younger ages.Sensory processing disorders are on the rise. We have become so focused with academic success that we have set our expectations for our pre-schoolers way too high. Kids in pre-k are not wired to sit down for hours. They are not wired to know how to read or to do arithmetic. Our society got this insane notion that if we teach things to children at a younger age they will be smarter. But what happens is that we are teaching our children skills they are not developmentally ready for. Some children, boys especially, can’t learn to read before they are seven! But if you expect that child to learn to read at 4, well, of course they are going to get frustrated with school. When you expect a pre-school to sit still for hours, well, he’s going to get frustrated when he can’t do it.

And here’s where it ends up. Children’s mental hospitals. I did my practicum in one. I saw kids as young as four given ADHD medication so they could sit still for long periods of time. Here’s the thing, you give a kid who had ADHD medication, and he will calm down. If you give a kid who does not have ADHD medication, he will become irritable. When this happens, rather than saying the kid does not have ADHD, what tends to happen is it is viewed as that child has depression that the ADHD was masking, so they’re given an antidepressant. And then when the child has the symptoms from the depression medication, they’re given a third medicine. Some kids get up to 18 medications so they can sit still. At the age of four.

A disclaimer, I do not feel all medication is evil. While I was working there I also saw kids with schizophrenia. They definitely needed medication to be lucid at best, or to at least control their outbursts at worse (the prognosis for childhood schizophrenia is not good). However, for things like ADHD, I feel that medication should be used as a LAST resort when behavioral options have been tried and failed. But too often it’s used first.

Something else to point out, the children’s hospital I was in did not have a playground. I did not learn about sensory processing disorders until I had graduated, but looking back, I realize that a lot of those kids likely had undiagnosed SPDs and would have benefited more from physical therapy and play as opposed to Adderral and Abilify.

Which is all a long winded way of getting to my basic point, when the expectations we place on children are too high, normal behavior become pathologized. When a four year old is expected to sit still for hours, not being able to sets that four year old on the path to being labeled ADHD. When a five year old can’t read, she is set on the path of thinking she is too stupid to learn.When we stress the importance of achieving a high score on a test above all else, we set our kids up for anxiety disorders.

In the two days Buddy has been at this new school, I have already seen good progress. He spends his days learning through play. On the note they send home they have play activity after play activity they have engaged him in. At his old school they did a lot of work sheets and art projects, both of which are not age appropriate for a pre-school. My son has made more progress with play activities than he has with five months of work sheets. And it frustrates me to no end that we have someone gotten so obsessed with academic achievement that the idea of children learning through play is revolutionary, and finding places that provide it are so exceedingly difficult.

Cleansing Time

Three weeks ago I left my job. The month started off rocky as I had my first UTI and then my kids got a stomach bug. But things have since settled down. We’ve gotten into a good routine, but more importantly I’m starting to recover emotionally from burn out.

I’d worried that I would go insane at home with the kids, but I’m actually enjoying it. I had been working four tens, getting up at five and waking my husband (and he is not someone who is easy to wake up and get moving, truthfully, it is easier to get my autistic five year old up and moving than it is my 34 year old husband) and kids up,. And since Andy does not do mornings, I was the one getting the kids ready and in the car and dropped off at daycare. And I am not a morning person myself. The pressure of doing all of this was getting so bad that I would wake up at 2AM and stare at the ceiling for three hours, unable to sleep due to the worries about oversleeping and failing to get everyone out of bed and out the door on time.

Now I sleep through the night AND I get to sleep in till 7, have a leisurely breakfast with my kiddos and then take them for a walk.

Buddy got a bike for his birthday, and he loves riding it. Every morning he talks excitedly about riding his bike, and I love watching him ride it. He’s very good at stopping when he gets a certain distance away from me and Sissy and waiting for us to catch up. Sissy insists on walking the 10 minute walk to and from the park like a big girl, though I carry her on my shoulders if need be. She’s becoming quite the naturalist and loves chasing birds and looking at plants and trees and collecting what she finds. And considering I don’t have a lot of mental energy in the mornings and tend to become more productive as the day passes, I like being able to take an hour or two (yes, we stay there that long, and usually I’m dragging the kids home because they don’t want to leave) in the mornings to just enjoy being outdoors without doing anything emotionally taxing.

One thing I worried about when I started to accept that Buddy had autism was his ability to bond with his sister. And I can happily say they are bonding. They both love being outdoors, eating popcorn, reading, dancing, listening to music and they’ve even started singing together. And at night during their bedtime routine they’ve started cuddling with each other when I sing. Yes, they also tease and torment each other and if one of them dares touch the other’s toy it’s WWIII, but that’s part of having a sibling. Overall they seem to like each other, which is good, because they’re stuck with each other!

Monday, after a fun two hour visit to the park in which Buddy and Sissy threw a tons of rocks into the creek, I got an email from my business partner talking shop, and I remembered that heck, I’ve got to get back to work in January! It was a bit of a shock just how much I was enjoying my breather, but it’s more than that, it’s been healing.

One thing I’ve found is that most counselors experience a lot of anxiety. I’m no exception. Strangely our clients tend to think we’re perfect beings who don’t understand the anguish of anxiety, but trust me, odds are if you’ve ever seen a counselor, that counselor has struggled with anxiety.

I was starting to reach record levels this year. For the last four years I’ve been working with clients who are essentially compelled to go into treatment to get their children back from the state or for probation/parole. Naturally, these people are not exactly excited about treatment, and have serious mental health issues that warrant state involvement and tend to be a difficult bunch.

When I was fresh and excited about my work, one thing I loved was seeing a pissed off, difficult client start group and transform into someone motivated and pleasant. In fact, some of my favorite clients started off as my more difficult ones. The group process is amazing, and by and large once people realized I wasn’t going to preach morality at them for 3 hours a day they tended to come around and were eager to work on their issues.

However, while a lot of the times there were good outcomes, sometimes there weren’t, and strangely, dealing with someone who was a reluctant newby didn’t become easier with time, it became harder and more and more emotionally taxing. There was a sense of, “well, I got X number of people motivated, and still more come in.” I just didn’t have it in me to continue dealing with the anger and resentment people have when they start treatment. And knowing that someone is only coming to see you because they fear the consequences of not doing so isn’t exactly good for the self-esteem.

Worse, seeing the new people was causing clinical levels of anxiety for me. When I would see a difficult or reluctant client it would get so bad that my chest would feel tight and I would have difficultly breathing enough to speak. It was hard for me to not think about all the bad ways a session could go or wonder if I would finally have someone go off the rails and do something horrible. I even had one that I worried was going to come into the office with an AK-47 and start shooting.

Combine this with caregiver fatigue. At work I took care of people. People who by and large have experience trauma. And then at home I took care of people.

To handle it I started detaching emotionally at work. I was pretty much doing what doctors do. I went to work for 10 hours and didn’t feel and walked around detached. It didn’t matter what anyone said or did to me because I’d turned myself off. It’s not a good way to live or practice counseling.

I have a lot of thoughts about CPS, probation, substance use and treatment, but I still can’t get those down yet. I’ve tried several times to get something together but keep hitting a dead end.

Overall I really needed this change. At the time I realized I was detached but I didn’t see how bad it was. Now I’m moving onto a career where I will be seeing clients who aren’t being forced to attend treatment, and my friends who have gone down that path before me assure me it is easier on the ego, more satisfying and less soul crushing. In some ways I’m kicking myself for not getting out sooner, but I think the important thing is that I got to this point.

Because it means beautiful mornings walking in the park with two little people who want to be with me more than anyone else in this world, as opposed to a cheerless room with a group of people who are compelled by the state to be with me. I’ll take the former, any day.