I don’t remember the last time I was so upset I had no control of my emotions. One of the benefits of being an adult is that we can generally keep things bottled up until the time and place is appropriate for a meltdown. I don’t throw myself down in the grocery store aisle and start kicking my feet at everyone who comes near me when I’m having a bad day. Angus, however, is a different case.

Last year, at Angus’s little oasis school, we saw such a decrease of meltdowns I naïvely believed that he had simply grown up. He had become more flexible, more adaptable. He knew himself—and what he wanted and needed—better than ever before. And there was evidence of this: at home, Angus could tell me when he was starting to feel “red.” He could use words like “frustrated” and “annoyed” to describe his feelings and he could number that frustration—he was a “5”, or a “6.” He knew when he was on the edge and could often warn us before he fell.

Then we lost the school, and the growth started to fade. It is difficult—when you are already stressed and anxious—to be adaptable. And when your starting place is a “7,” getting to a “10” doesn’t take much of a push.

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There are days when multiple meltdowns are recounted to me at pick-up, and while I do think: that must be difficult for his teachers, or, that must make it hard for his classmates, mostly what I think is, man, that must be a nightmare for my kid. Because while I don’t often lose control of my emotions, I can recall precisely what that feels like: agony.

Last month Angus and I did an autism presentation for his class, which was a little bit about autism and a big bit about how our brains react to stressors. We started off talking about Dr. Daniel Siegel’s hand model of the brain (the limbic area as our thumb folded across our palm, and the fingers wrapped over it forming a fist-shaped cortex). We talked about how sometimes when things happen that cause big emotions, they fill our limbic area until we “flip our lids,” and we’re no longer using the thinking part of our brain at all.

Then we grabbed our jars of different coloured water—our stressors: biological, social, sensory and cognitive—and ran through a day in the life of “Bob.” We filled a vase (Bob’s limbic area) with stressors as he encountered them. After we watched “Amazing Things Happen,” a five-minute cartoon about autism, we did the vase activity again, focusing on “Sam” with autism, running into more stressors, and adding a little bit more water with each one Sam faced.

We talked about how many kids with autism have larger reactions to stressors, but also find things stressful that don’t bother their friends: noises that might be imperceptible to others, bright lights, smells. Sam’s vase overflowed of course. It was our hope to share in a small way what is going on for Angus, and what might be going on for them sometimes as well.

School is a stressful place, and it is a particularly stressful place for kids who are sensitive—whether that sensitivity is attached to a diagnosis or not. While some children seem made for school, there will always be square-pegged kids who have a harder time “fitting,” and that need accommodations in order to succeed: a little more time, a little more support, a little more flexibility of expectations. How can we provide this? Today, many schools are bursting at the seams: crowded, their fields lined with portables. Recently the Times Colonist gave frontpage coverage to kids with special needs asked by their schools to stay home, a practice that is in no way “news” in the traditional sense, as it’s been happening for years. There are simply not enough qualified EAs to support all of them—nor is there enough money to supply all kids with the supports they need.

I think about these kids – the ones who need something a little different than their peers. How full are their vases? I think about the lack of EAs—the kids told to stay home or who are kept home by choice—either for part days or entire ones. They’re prevented from learning with their classmates, but how much learning are they realistically doing when the water is nearing the brim? Our most vulnerable children are our canaries, and it might serve us well to lower our ears towards them. To listen.

Laura Trunkey is mother to the amazing Angus and the author of a forthcoming short fiction collection from House of Anansi. Email [email protected].

Laura Trunkey
Laura Trunkey
Laura Trunkey is the mother of the amazing Angus and the author of the story collection Double Dutch. Contact her at [email protected].