I started Christmas break with a Scrooge attitude. It was time for Ryan to be off from school for two weeks and I knew he was unable to handle less structure and the change in routine. I prepared myself for the inevitable potty accidents, meltdowns, regressions, and Ryan’s overall unhappiness with staying home from school. I count my blessings every day that Ryan loves school. And every year at Christmas time, I think about how nice it would be for Ryan to go to a year round school that had no breaks, if a school like that existed.
It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with my son. I just hate to see him struggling, unhappy, and unable to participate in certain holiday activities that are overwhelming to him. I wish that all the holiday traditions made sense to him and that he could enjoy all the decorations and exciting changes that surround him.
So I wrote out a schedule for Ryan each day of the break. I found that a schedule is one way to add structure and stability to Ryan’s days. There was a time for everything, including getting dressed, eating meals, and other activities. We crossed off each item as we went along.
As a family, Ryan, his dad and I went on hikes, took a trip to the zoo.
We even stayed over night at a hotel on New Years Eve to get away from the loud fireworks. Fireworks are legal in our state. I knew each outing would be a struggle due to Ryan’s anxiety and sensory issues. He gets overstimulated in many environments away from home.
But we were determined to keep Ryan busy. And the only way we knew to help Ryan over being uncomfortable with being away from home was through gradual exposure. Some people call it exposure therapy.
It didn’t take long for my scrooge attitude to start fading away as I began to notice something had changed this winter break. Ryan seemed happier and more at ease. He actually enjoyed the hotel and jumped right into the indoor swimming pool.
He smiled as he ate a slice of pizza at an over stimulating restaurant. He opened all of his presents on Christmas morning without anxiety over what unknown object could be inside.
Could it be the very small dose of medication we were experimenting with to help Ryan’s anxiety was working? As the winter break went on, it became apparent that Ryan was more focussed, more verbal, and more able to cope. I honestly wasn’t expecting to see a dfference in Ryan. We had tried medications in the past and nothing worked. In fact, many times the side affects were worse than the problem we were trying to treat. Trying a new medication is always hard. My husband and I don’t want to give our child any type of medication unless it is absolutely necessary, ever. We almost gave up on it.
But we got to the point where we were concerned with Ryan missing out on life. He had just turned 8 in December, was high functioning on the autism scale, yet he couldn’t go to movies, restaurants, birthday parties, stores or many other places due to his anxiety. Basically, exposure therapy was not working. We could expose him to all of these places many times, but he wasn’t happy away from home and he wasn’t improving.
So we started Ryan on a small dose of a new medication for his anxiety and followed the advice of Bill Nason, author of “The Autism Discussion Page on Anxiety, Behavior, School, and Parenting Strategies.” You will also find him on Facebook. He wrote, “Only stay with a medication if it is having a ‘wow’ effect. . . If the medication is truly therapeutic, you will see significant improvement in your child’s mood, attention, or behavior. If you only see small changes, it is not worth putting chemicals into the child. If the medication is truly treating a biochemical imbalance in the child, you will see significant changes.”
As we continue through the New Year, the changes have been significant. My husband and I often look at each other and say to each other, “Who is this alien child who just came out of his room, is looking us in the eyes, and connecting with us by inviting us into his world?” Ryan is growing and changing with each day. It wasn’t too far into the Christmas break that I dropped my scrooge attitude and embraced the chance to spend quality time with my son.
Nothing is perfect. And there is no such thing as a magic pill. Ryan’s behaviors still improve, then get worse again. He still has anxiety. But I notice that the medication is taking enough edge off of the anxiety so he can learn to cope. Our whole family is enjoying this pleasant and unexpected changes that will bring us many new surprises in 2016.