Usually in our house the classic 'back to school' meltdown from Marvel A doesn't occur until around about the second week back in school. Like the classic cartoon sticks of dynamite, we can virtually watch her walking around day by day as the flame works it's way down the fuse to ignite the explosive, blowing at anywhere between 7 and 10 days into the start of the new term. Given everything we know about being Autistic it is no great surprise that school should invoke this reaction in her. The hustle and bustle of school, the assault on the senses, the 6 hour days of having to conform with social norms, the wearing of an invisible 'mask' day after day just to try and fit in - it must be so hard for her. I know it was for me. She can only suppress that pent up anxiety and stress for a maximum of 10 days before she detonates.
The meltdowns can sometimes be small, short lived little firecrackers. An overly stubborn reaction, sparked by a mere simple and polite request, that results in a firey rude and angry outburst. The firecracker fizzles out quickly, but there are plenty more where that came from.
But, at other times, the meltdown can be a far more combustible reaction, resulting in a highly flammable, hysterical detonation of screaming, crying and persistent shouting, that erupts in spewing molten lava, for anywhere between 30 and 90 minutes, before it starts to burn itself out.
Whilst the trigger for the meltdown is never usually that obvious to someone looking in from the outside, it is always clear to us, because we have been here many times before and like a November the 5th fireworks display, it happens at the same time every year. You can mark it on the calendar, with preparations seemingly starting earlier and earlier every year. Many times since Marvel A first started school we have encountered these meltdowns, which bring along with them mine and Em's own intense feelings of utter helplessness, as we struggle to calm and console her. We have experienced our own frustrations as the meltdowns usually tend to personally target us either physically - by hitting and pushing, or emotionally - by insulting or scolding. We are also used to the experience of the distinct lack of understanding from many others around us, as the route cause of the stress and anxiety simmering away inside of Marvel A is never truly known or seen by anyone else. In fact, most will generally only see the somewhat trivial beginnings that trigger the next inferno - the 'wrong' snack handed to her after school or the misplaced 'no' in response to another unreasonable demand.
Marvel A may look and seem like a rude and poorly behaved child, but how little they know. She is actually a vulnerable 8 year old girl dealing with constant stress and anxiety caused by not really knowing her place in the world, not knowing why she feels so awkward, not knowing why she feels so lost.
But this year is different. For the past week we have been seeing the beginnings of the new old-school meltdown. A different type of event altogether.
2020 has been a strange year for virtually everyone in the entire world - no one will have escaped the new reality of life in the middle of a pandemic. For some, the new norm has not been pleasurable and it has brought many challenges. For us however, a sense of calm quickly invited itself into the Marvel house just weeks into 'lock down' and by and large it has remained with us ever since.
Marvel A especially has seemed to enjoy a new found comfort in the safe space she calls 'home'. She has been able to manage and maintain her own routines, without outside influence forcing her to accept change and she has been able to almost completely relax into herself and be who she wants to be. We have even seen a distinct change in her personality. But now, after 6 months at home in her safe space, being her true self, she is now facing the prospect of going back to school in less than a week.
This new intro to the new school year seems to be re-defining the classic 'back to school' meltdown we have come to anticipate at this time of year.
This time, rather than the total calm before the flame sparks the fuse, we are seeing much more of a slow and cumulative build up. This time more like a piece of Classical music, building over time toward a crescendo, but starting almost silently in the background, slowly and gradually building in volume over time. Every now and then, completely out of nowhere, comes the intermittent loud crash of symbols - the bursts of angry, frightening sound, that dies back down only to start to build again. Like waves, the outbursts come and go, the next bigger than the last, but smaller than the next.
We haven't yet reached the end of this musical score, but I have heard this piece before and I know it ends in a loud and sustained ensemble that hurts my ears. All we can do now is brace ourselves for Marvel A's crescendo - her outpouring of emotion, tears and heartache and hope that we can do our best to muffle the noise for her, if even just a little, as she finds the challenge of 'settling back into school' even greater than ever before.