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Walking into this pandemic, my son Ian, the 18-year old with high functioning autism, already had an elevated level of trauma. He was diagnosed with epilepsy in January and then had a SUPER BAD reaction to the medication, which culminated in a three-day hospital stay in the beginning of March.
Ian was devastated when school closed in the second week of March. He missed the academics. Friendless kids like Ian only see other kids in their classrooms, so he had no contact with anyone his age. He missed routine. His school didn’t offer any live zoom classes for the first six weeks of the shutdown; he still only gets an hour or two of live classrooms per week. As I predicted, public schools have done a terrible job helping kids with special needs.
His stress was compounded by a meltdown in the world — CNN was on all day — and by us at home. Panic levels were high those first weeks, as we had to get our college kid home from school, relocate office space to our home, and buy food necessities. Suddenly, there were four adults living under one roof all day. It was crazy town.
As a result, Ian’s OCD verbal tics — if I say “A,” he says “B” in a loud, annoying voice — were off the charts. It was difficult to be cooped up with him. Meanwhile, he was miserable and full of self-hatred for making those tics.
So, we regrouped. We instituted a very strict routine at home with meals at 7, 12, and 7. Family yoga is at 11:30 am every day. He takes a two-mile walk on his own at 2:00 pm. This monastic lifestyle does not come naturally to me, so it takes a lot of effort to maintain these new routines.
Without our usual weekend amusements, we have found new outlets for fun on Saturday and Sunday, so one day didn’t merge meaninglessly into another. The schedule is looser, but still has its own patterns — we go for hikes, watch mass on tv, get a meal from a local restaurant with curbside delivery, do laundry, and work on a home project. Tomorrow, the back patio is going to get a coat of paint.
If it was just me, I would probably write seven days a week and subsist on slabs of cheddar cheese and Triscuits, but out of necessity, we’ve all gotten sucked into Ian’s compulsive vortex of time and activities. So, now I’m taking a morning walk, doing the food shopping, managing my diet, also on a rigid schedule. I suppose it’s not terrible to be so organized, but it is a major life change, and thus, terribly exhausting.
Exhausting and annoying it might be, but those changes worked. Ian is back to his normal self with “normal” being a highly relative term. He’s happy and stopped his strange language manipulations. What will happen when he has to go back to school? He may be too independent and eccentric by September to blend back into a mainstream setting without massive amounts of therapy and reprogramming. I am trying very hard to not lose my head about the fears for the future.
But Ian isn’t the only one dealing with pandemic trauma. As part of the research for an article, I am talking to teachers, kids and families who are truly struggling. Jonah finished off finals this week, without the usual beer-fest reward, and now he has to come up with a new game plan for the summer, and maybe the fall. It is a huge bummer to be a college student right now.
On top of a daily routine, we’re managing to keep sane by each having our own passions/side hustles/hobbies. In my case, I am watching little cooking videos on Instagram and selling vintage books on Etsy. Steve will spend the weekend transplanting little tomatoes plants into the garden. Jonah is glued to message boards on Reddit reading about politics and sports. Ian always has a music app or a computer program on his screen.
The longer we stay at home away from schools and workplaces and extended family and bars and restaurants, the crazier we all get. Our nation will have to heal when this is all done.
But maybe the healing process won’t involve therapists and yoga mats. Maybe we’ll see a new Jazz Age with free flowing gin or a new Woodstock period of long hair and drugs. Freed from the boring paths that we had set up for them for a few months ago with AP classes and SATs and internships and degrees from good schools — all that doesn’t matter any more — maybe our kids will chart their own ships to more exciting places.
So, at the end of this, we’ll either be crazy or free. Not sure how it’s going to pan out.