As the long days of summer gradually begin to shrink and Labor Day draws near, the school bells will soon ring in unison to mark the opening of another academic year. Many adults will reminisce about their high school years, with memories of old friends and classmates dancing. For many others, especially from my generation, the high school experience was one which they would rather forget.
One unpleasant memory from that pivotal stage of life that comes to mind happened on the first day of my sophomore year– not so much because I did anything wrong, but because I just felt a little more out of place than the typical underclassman.
It all happened so fast, quite literally at the very moment I walked through the double doors from the front parking lot, leading to the commons. My peers and upper-classmen hurried to their first hour of classes. Some radiated with delight to see familiar faces and were eager to start another season of volleyball or jazz band, while others appeared far too occupied to say a simple, “Hey, how’d your summer go?”
Seconds after entering those double doors, an uncomfortable sensation kindled like a torch in my gut and spread like wildfire throughout my entire body, then shot up straight to my head. Conflicting, confusing thoughts raced in my mind and collided like a multi-vehicle pile-up during rush hour. I had no idea why I was suddenly overcome by this unusual physiological reaction, but it most likely was a direct result from what no one should ever experience in his or her family, especially during the turbulent period of adolescence.
My mom passed away five months earlier from terminal breast cancer. Although she was diagnosed fifteen months prior, her loss was still so sudden and unexpected to me that I didn’t know if our family would ever be able to carry on as we did in the past without her love, which was unconditional in every way. My dad, sister and I counted on each other for emotional support to endure the grieving process, and by the time summer ended, we were mentally and emotionally prepared to face the oncoming challenges of the real world once again, or so I thought. There must have been a part of me that never got over that tragic loss. The intense nervousness that overwhelmed me could have manifested due to my difficulty relating to any of my peers, as they still had their mothers to rely on for care and support.
At the time, I thought I was entering a stage of deep depression caused by the heartache from my mom’s passing. Still, this clearly didn’t explain why I couldn’t stop asking myself trivial questions about my classmates with no definite answers; “Why are they excited and I’m not?” “They should be unhappy to know that school is back in session. Why are they enjoying themselves while I’m feeling so miserable?” “These kids are so oblivious! Do they have any idea what I’m going through right now?” These irreverent yet dominating questions pounded in my head throughout the day, and as the bell rang at the end of the last period, I drove the family-owned SUV straight back home, stormed to my room and closed the door, relieved that the unnatural amount of stress finally began to wane. As I asked myself what could have caused this intense nervous response, little did I realize that I was at the complete mercy of a brutal chain reaction between separation anxiety and social anxiety disorders, both of which I’ll define in the next part of this article.
I never considered that my history of autism would possibly have a connection to this unsettling experience. How could the characteristics of a disabling disorder I endured as a small child have a direct impact on a supposedly unrelated one several years later? I was shocked to discover that the prevalence of excess anxiety in children and individuals with autism is alarmingly high. This topic hasn’t been written about or discussed within the autism community as often as it should, and I feel more than obligated to share what I’ve learned.
In the following segments, I’ll explain why severe anxiety is commonplace in those diagnosed with autism, the signs of anxiety in autism spectrum disorders, and effective treatment methods to keep them at bay. As I conclude this part, I’d like to ask this question to our readers and your feedback is more than appreciated: Do you remember a specific time in your life in where you have felt very anxious? If so, what symptoms did you have or feel?