Anxiety: Avoid or Enable? By Guest Blogger Rachel McNamara
The school cross-country event was this morning. Please refer to my first blog post about this event.
Working our way up to the cross-country event (after my last post on this) had not been easy. Damian still intermittently told me that he did not want to do the cross-country event, so I created a story (loosely based on Carol Gray’s Social Stories TM, for children with autism) for encouragement that I have copied below. The photos are roughly edited (because I didn’t want to spend too much time on it) for anonymity, so I hope my choice of disguise doesn’t freak you out too much.
Damian loved his story and I explained to him that I made it for him to show him how he could do physical activities like the cross-country event. Damian then immediately said, not anxiously but more matter-of-factly, that he was not going to do it. Once he makes up his mind about something it is hard to shift it. So I immediately said “I’ll give you 10 tokens if you do it” (that is a lot more tokens than I usually give in one go). He replied casually with “Ok then” and then tried to negotiate up (the number of tokens) unsuccessfully.
So it was all going well in the last cross-country training session, with Damian joining in, until Jeremy overtook him and ran in the older childrens’ lane to do so. They had been assigned lanes according to their age group and Damian instantly took the instructions too literally and accused Jeremy of cheating. Once again, Damian stopped in the middle of the track.
Fortunately, it was time to do the next activity, so all the children lined up ready to run sprints across the small oval from side-to-side. Damian was still upset about Jeremy running outside his lane and overtaking him so he lay down right in the middle of where all the children about to run. It was quite a sight to see. One of the mum’s beside me who knew that I felt embarrassed, especially after it took Mr C some time to encourage him to move up to the line, said jokingly “Whose child is that?” (one of my favourite jokes, where you are expected to jokingly deny that the child is yours when they are misbehaving). Fortunately, after that, Damian joined in and enjoyed the sprinting activity.
The morning of the cross-country event was hilarious. It was lucky that I wasn’t in a rush to get ready for school because Jeremy was walking in ‘slow motion’ to conserve his energy for the event and Damian was so relaxed about the upcoming event that he sat on the toilet for fifteen minutes singing his modified versions of Christmas carols and practicing his evil laugh (because he can).
I talked to the boys about what they were eating for breakfast (porridge, bananas and juice) and how that would give them the right kind of energy for the cross-country event. Jeremy didn’t drink all his juice so I drank the rest adding “I need energy to be a helper too”. I had volunteered to be a parent helper. Damian didn’t hear me properly and said “What? You need energy to be hyper (hyperactive)?” that started us all giggling.
Over the last few days, Jeremy had been talking about the children who he thought would come first in his grade. That morning he also added that he was still going to try to come first. Damian intervened ‘word for word’ with “It’s not about winning. It’s all about fun and exercise” and then “It doesn’t matter, as long as you give it a ‘red hot go’” (a phrase that the school uses to encourage trying). It occurred to me that Damian really must have been anxious about ‘placings’ by the urgency with which he answered Jeremy.
Of course, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with competing to win but you also need a balance to that approach because clearly not everyone can win and with other goals in mind as well, you have the opportunity to succeed without having to ‘win’.
I told Damian that was a great attitude and gave him a high-five and then discussed the concept of a personal best (doing better than you did last year), which unfortunately backfired a little later. I then applied the ‘personal best’ concept (as a joke) to getting ready for school. It didn’t really help as they were too excited.
I asked Damian before leaving, as a reminder “Now, what do you do if your muscles get sore?” He smiled cheekily and said “STOP”. I said “No… try again, what do you do if your muscles get sore?” He smiled again and said (in a fast voice) “Run as fast as I can”. Like a sucker, I repeated the question a third time and he said “Fall down on the ground” and laughed. Then he said “I was just answering the wrong way” (for fun). Clearly, I had prepped him too well.
Jeremy and Damian are in the ‘Blue’ house team at school (there are five different house colours) and Jeremy started chanting “Blue’s are going to win, blue’s are going to win, blue’s are going to win” and Damian joined in. I thought I’d better chant in with “But we’re going to be happy for another team if they win, but we’re going to be happy for another team if they win, but we’re going to be happy for another team if they win”.
I asked Damian if I could take a photo of him in the cross-country event because sometimes he doesn’t like photos and he replied “Yes, but you won’t be able to see me because I’ll be going so fast It’ll just be a blur”.
When it came time for the cross-country event, both my boys were excited. I had a position on the track as a parent helper, which was close to the start and finish lines so I managed to get a few good photos of the boys and cheered them on. I cheered all the kids on, I know a lot of them by name and you can see that they really respond well to being personally cheered on. Damian mentioned to me afterwards that he was surprised that people that he didn’t know cheered him on too.
When I went to join Damian after the event was over, I noticed that Damian’s chair was right up the back of all the rest of the children, suggesting that he had been moved for a reason. Damian told me that the noise (of all the kids cheering) was too loud. Another child that I knew interrupted explaining that she had been moved to the back too because the noise gave her a headache. I thought that it was wonderful that they weren’t alone in their experience and had been looked after by the teachers. I sympathized with them both and I told them that it would have been too noisy for me among all the children too.
Jeremy was really happy with where he placed, which was a handful of spots better than last year. Unfortunately, Damian’s place was lower than last year and he felt diappointed with the result. I gave Damian lots of hugs and told him how proud I was of him for participating and running well and that he probably ran faster than last year, it’s just that the other children did too. My words didn’t make much difference but the hugs did.
Damian was really clingy with me, so I stayed with him until it was time for him to go into class and held his hand and gave him lots of hugs, which improved his mood greatly. Meanwhile, Jeremy was happily chatting away with his friends and didn’t seem to need me. I was afraid that Jeremy would feel left out so when Jeremy begged me to stay behind for the presentations (after they returned to their classrooms) I agreed to stay.
The blue team came second for the sixth year running and interestingly they were the only team that didn’t clap themselves. The red team came third and cheered very loudly. The yellow team won and they of course cheered the loudest. Jeremy expressed frustration that he didn’t try that little bit harder (because Mr C said that the other team had only won by a “decimal point”, it was that close). I played up the fact that they must have won a record for getting second six years in a row and pointed out how all the other teams had been happy for getting their place.
I do have to remember to acknowledge my boys feelings when feel disappointed or frustrated, I’ll work on that this afternoon.
Maybe I can relate a story where I felt the same once just to let them know I understand and re-word how they are feeling and why eg. “I can see that you feel disappointed that you didn’t place as well as last year. I remember feeling a bit disappointed when I came last for my age group in the triathalon but the disappointed feeling didn’t last for long because I was proud of finishing such a challenging event”. Maybe then I could ask if Damian has any ideas how he could improve next year if it’s of concern to him.
Anyhow, I’ve already printed off photos of the boys looking happy and excited before the event and photos of them looking like little professionals running in the event (so cute) to show them at the end of the day, to remind them that they did feel good throughout the morning and they looked good too.
So much preparation and thought goes into your child when you have a child with special needs but it is well worth the effort. I feel that my children are better off with all the support and professional advice that we have received and continue to receive and apply as a result of their respective diagnoses than they would have been if they were any other child because it has forced me to be a more informed and conscious parent. Any of the things that I do with my boys are applicable to any other child for supporting, encouraging and helping them be the best that they can be (with vulnerabilities that they are not ashamed of).