Back to School: Pencils, Notebooks & Prozac

It’s back to school time and you know what that means.  Searching the stores for just the right backpack, sniffing dry-erase markers in the school supply aisle to find some that don’t smell like jet fuel, and dragging your kid through the shoe store looking for sneakers that don’t squish his toes or cost more than your car payment.  Ah, don’t you just love the smell of school buses in the morning? 

It’s all worth it though, right?  Because as much as we love our sweet little darlings, we’ve spent most of the last three months within twenty feet of them and if we have to hear one more argument about who left the TV remote where the dog could get it, or why they should get more time with their nosed pressed against a TV screen/computer monitor (because apparently six hours a day of video games is not enough and besides, sunshine is evil) our brains are going to melt and run right out our ears.  We love our children, but by the end of summer we find ourselves driving by our kids’ school looking for signs of life and fantasizing about five minutes of peace and quiet all in a row.  Is it any wonder that we’re willing to pay three times the going rate for stationary supplies if they’re covered in cartoon characters just to get our kids excited about school and out the door? 

But for a lot of us, the feeling of giddy joy the thought of the school bell ringing brings is tempered with a feeling of dread.  Because if you’ve got a kid with Asperger’s/high functioning autism/similar (a kid with ASRD – Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders), you know there’s a good chance the beginning of the school year is going to be a bit rocky.  By rocky, I mean perhaps getting a telephone call by lunchtime where your part of the conversation sounds like this: “Yes, this is Mrs. Zupke.  Yes, I’m his mother.  A problem?  In the teacher’s lounge?  The whole cake?  Dry cleaning bills for how many teachers?  Yes, of course, I’ll be right down.”            

In short, you’re worried.  The first few weeks of school haven’t always gone smoothly before and you’re not sure they will this year.  In the past if your child had a great teacher, you’d done a good enough job of prepping him, his medicines were in balance, and he was willing and able to keep it together, the school year may have gone well.  But that’s no guarantee this year will.  What if the teacher doesn’t like him?  What if she doesn’t know about autism?  What if the other kids are mean to him?  What if he gets anxious or frustrated or confused and has a major meltdown?  What if he has a hard time at lunch?  What if he can’t keep up with the note taking or abstract thinking or homework required for the class?  What if one of the hundred other things you can’t anticipate or prepare him for happen?  What if?           

Back to school time can be really hard on parents of ASRD kids.   It can be hard on our kids too.  Over the summer everything has changed and they can have a hard time adjusting.  “I hate this new teacher!  She wants me to do my math homework this way but that’s wrong!  Last year’s teacher told me to do it the other way.  And what’s with this symbolism stuff in language arts?  The teacher keeps asking me which part of the story shows that the character is sad but the story doesn’t say that, it just talks about sunsets and darkness and stuff.  If the author meant he was sad he should have said so.  And the kids in my class are so mean!  Last year they all liked Pokemon but at recess today when I showed them my new cards they told me I was a stupid baby.  And I don’t know which bus I have to get on to get home.  What if I get on the wrong bus?  Will I get lost?  Will I have to sleep at the bus garage tonight?  Which bathroom am I supposed to use this year?  The air conditioner in the classroom is so noisy.  When is this stupid day going to be over?!?”           

The beginning of the school year isn’t always easy for your child’s teacher, either.  She spent the summer getting her lesson plans together and figuring out how to teach to state standards without boring her students into puddles of goo.  When she arrived for the first day of school her mail slot held seven messages from concerned parents, reminders for a grade level meeting, a note telling everyone to ante up for the coffee fund, and a memo from the principal stating that two more students have been added to her class and it will be a week or so before enough textbooks can be found.  In the few minutes she had before she opened her classroom door and met her new class, she double checked her seating chart one more time.  Kid with ADD near the front to reduce distractions.  Check.  Kid with ADHD in the back so he can fidget.  Check.  Kid with bladder difficulties near the door.  The twins on opposite sides of the room per mother’s request.  Kid with ASRD in the front row, on the end so he’s away from the fan and there’s room for his aide and he’s not near the class pet because he thinks guinea pigs stink and he’s not by the solar system poster because deep space makes him nervous.  Check.            

An hour later the students are in the room, introductions are done, and the first assignment announced.  Twenty nine kids have their heads down and pencils moving, busy writing paragraphs about what they did that summer.  One child is scowling at the teacher, teetering on the edge of a meltdown as she tries to explain nicely for the fourth time that writing “I played video games,” over and over does not count as a paragraph and surely he must remember at least one other thing he did in the last three months.  She smiles as she looks at the clock and realizes it’s a very long time until June.

It would be nice if any of the pretty back-to-school supplies offered up by stores could solve the problems ASRD kids, their parents and teachers face each year – that if we just bought the right pencils or notebooks then our children would slide easily into the new school year – no fuss, no muss.  But it doesn’t work like that.  Getting acclimated to a new school year is like running sandpaper across a knotty log.  It’s hard work at first.  Eventually though, with a lot of work and a lot of care (and a little swearing), some of the bumps in the classroom routine even out and everyone can relax.  The knots in the log don’t go away; there will always be a few hard spots.  But hopefully with patience, persistence and familiarity, the knots are smoothed out enough to get rid of the splinters while letting the wood’s quirky beauty shine through.  Yeah, our kids aren’t easy – but they’re worth it.

So, hang in there!  I know the start of school isn’t easy, but by Christmas things will have settled down a lot.  Kids, teachers and parents will all know each other better and hopefully will have figured out how to make things work.  Until then have patience with each other, bring chocolate to all your parent/teacher conferences, and take your kid out for ice cream.  It really will get better. 

– Cassie

P.S.  This blog post is dedicated to Brynn and all the other parents out there who spent the last few weeks nursing a stomach ache because you’re worried about the start of school.  You aren’t alone!   We’ve all been there.  It gets better, I promise.

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