As I watched my youngest son playing in the swimming pool a few weeks ago, I suddenly realised that I had tears running down my cheeks. Happy tears. Relieved tears. He was happy, relaxed and enjoying himself and that might sound like normality for an 11-year-old in a swimming pool. Trust me when I tell you that for us it is far from normal.
I have blogged a little about my experiences with my youngest son over the last two years. In short, I have always suspected that there was something different about him. Quirky is a word that springs to mind, not quite like other children but with a few hiccups, he made it through primary school quite happily.
When he went to middle school everything changed. Everything. Our happy, quirky boy became angry, aggressive, violent at times. We didn’t know what was happening. He stopped going out, he gave up all sport. Getting through the school day was all he could manage. The rest of the time we were lucky if we could even get him out of his pyjamas, let alone out of the house.
We sought medical advice and the terms high functioning, Aspergers, high anxiety were mentioned but a diagnosis would be at the end of a very long process and even then, a diagnosis might not change anything. There were no answers, no support, no help. We read a lot and found lots of similar stories online, but 15 months ago we felt helpless, we wanted to help him and help our family but we had no idea how.
As time went on, it became obvious that whatever the underlying issue was, anxiety was the root of meltdowns and slowly we started to see warning signs and piece together a way of dealing with him. Slowly, over time, we started to get our son back.
He needs lots of space, time to himself and this has helped a lot. If he is showing signs of anxiety, we back right off and often he gets through it by himself. We now know that our immediate response of trying to calm him down only makes him worse. When he gets into the car after school, I don’t say much to him, if I do it just winds him up, he needs time to process, to unwind.
Routine is also important and avoiding any sudden changes. We have to plan ahead and give him time to process things. His usual response is a refusal but will often come round by the time it happens. We also have to accept that there are some things and some times when he just won’t do things and even though he misses out or we miss him, I am just happy that he will now do some things with us and we can be a family again. A happy family. Well happyish.
The other thing I have learnt though is that he needs to be pushed out of his comfort zone. Left to his own devices a year ago, I’m not sure he would have ever left the house to do anything. We had a family holiday without him, had days out without him and it felt like there was something missing. At the time, it was the right decision for everyone but as he has started to come back to himself, I am pushing him to do things with us. We went to Disneyland Florida last summer which was a huge thing for him, especially as he hadn’t flown before. We had a couple of bad days but he came and we all enjoyed the experience.
There have been football matches, ice skating, tobogganing, basketball matches, rugby matches, visits to trampoline parks. He has started coming to the beach with us when we are in Wales. He has started to go out with friends. All of these things wouldn’t have happened a year ago. We do still have to think of his needs when we are out and about and sometimes if the anxiety strikes, we have to make a swift exit home but the important thing is that we have made progress both in the house and out.
We need to push him out of his comfort zone. It helps him even if he doesn’t enjoy it. We are learning about how to manage him and his needs and we can see that he feels satisfaction if he tries something new. It is good for his (very low) self-esteem. So whatever happens over the next few years, we will have to keep gently pushing him out of his comfort zone as I think it is an important part of helping become a better and more outgoing adult.