Next week, mid-week, school begins. My son is starting at a new school, entirely new peers and a new teacher. If I relied solely on what the little guy says to convey to me what he thinks of all of this, I’d be completely in the dark.
I’ve talked with him about transitioning from kindergarten to first grade and about the new school. We know the school building because it is our “home” district. He’s had occupational therapy and speech there. He’s been assessed there. But he’s never gone there. He says nothing. If he is asked to repeat his teacher’s name, the school name or his grade, he dutifully will. He expresses no emotion.
A social story is in play with photos of the school, full of positive emotions. Yesterday, we toured the campus. No students – no teachers. Just us, tutors, the special ed director, and empty rooms.
He smiled through the tour. He didn’t talk much. In fact, the only time I remember him speaking was when we entered the gym. He looked around and said, “I want a basketball.”
After the tour, he had a full day of therapy. He became extremely – quiet. When asked something, he was barely audible in response. Instead of talking, he agreed with just about anything. For example, in the late afternoon I asked him if he liked the radio in Daddy’s car and he softly said, “yes.” (He hates the radio – all radio). It’s like he just wants to make it through the day and get away from the pressure, escape thinking about next week.
Oddly enough, coinciding with my son’s newfound “quietness”, I read the discussion of a study in which the differences between the ways that people with ASD process emotions as compared to neurotypicals.
The story goes that there are a couple ways to process emotions. The example given was one where you say “hi” to someone and they fail to reciprocate. How do you process your feelings about this? Do you take this as a snub and internalize or suppress the feelings? Or do you use “reappraisal” of the situation by thinking that maybe the person didn’t see you and then move on with whatever you are doing?
“In reappraisal, you really work through the problem. You don’t simply clamp down on the emotion. The result is a highly effective regulation strategy, one that’s been shown to reduce negative emotions without interfering with other cognitive processes.
Suppression, on the other hand, would involve hiding your true feelings – telling yourself not to show the upset you feel about your friend having just ignored you. This approach is simple, but it’s also less effective in the long run. Not only is it less able to banish negative feelings, but the effort of keeping a lid on turbulent emotions can put a drag on cognitive performance.”
According to the study, people with ASD tend to use suppression more often than reappraisal. This is even after accounting for something called “alexithymia”, yet another new word for me.
Alexithymia is defined as an emotional blindness. It is a trait which is supposed to affect about 10 percent of the population and is further described as the difficulty of people to perceive and describe emotions of others and themselves.
It seems to be tied in to the theory of mind discussions, I often see in relation to autism. Let me just say that I see my son as understanding my emotions probably 70-80 percent of the time. Other times, he has actually physically, though accidentally bumped me hard enough to cause me pain, including an obvious bloody lip and, on other occasions, he’s seen me crying. Sometimes, he smiles, laughs or seems unknowing and goes back to what he was doing, not recognizing that I am wounded. So, there is definitely some deficit in his ability to perceive the emotions of others (at the very least, me). On other occasions, he is so understanding, he may begin to cry as well or try to kiss away the boo-boo. There are many discussions of the intertwining of Asperger’s and Alexithymia, some of which you can peruse here.
Reading about this led me to understand that, with training, some of the deficits my son must contend with may be eased. The Stanford Autism Center is currently conducting a study addressing the physiological responses such as heart rate, brain activation, and breathing together with psychological data to create a training regimen to improve emotional regulation. One of the researchers of this study, said:
There’s very preliminary evidence of a connection between social deficits and emotional dysregulation,” said Hardan. “If we have something that will help dysregulation but also helps with social deficits, that would be a great contribution to this field.”
Going back to the quietness that surfaced after our tour of the new school, I’m thinking he may be suppressing some of his real feelings. He is choosing not to talk about or address his anxiety to make it go away. What this will do to him, when he has to face 30 other students he’s never met, with a new teacher, in a new classroom for a nearly six (6) hour day? That scares me.
I know he is strong and he can be brave. I know he will have an ABA tutor he knows with him. But I know he is scared and he doesn’t want to talk about it even though he’s been provided with social stories, tours, and reminders. Perhaps, that is the best I can do.
Life must play itself out, even when things are new and scary. When they are new and scary for typical kids, they can use words easily, and express their feelings.
My son can’t. Often, he doesn’t even know where the upset feelings are coming from. This makes it harder. He shows his stress differently. Sometimes, there is no way to prepare for the difficulty he will have, and no predictability about when he will no longer be able to suppress it. And when he is no longer able to suppress it, I will be there to pick up the pieces, calm the nerves and provide the love. Because that’s the best I can do.