“You have to come get me,” the mid-morning text from my son read.
“I can’t,” I responded. “What’s up?”
This has been happening his entire freshman year of high school. The deeper we get into the year, the more frequent these instances become.
“I can’t stay here.”
“What’s going on, Buddy?” I asked again.
“No one will shut up and let the teacher talk. I can’t do my work.”
We have plans in place for this — this agitation and overwhelm. He’s allowed to take breaks in the guidance office. Everyone knows the plan.
“Ask your teacher to take a break. Go to guidance to chill out.”
“No! I’M NOT STAYING HERE! COME GET ME NOW!”
Again, I respond, “I can’t pick you up early today. Where are you now?”
“I’m in the bathroom. I’m not going back in there. I’ll just stay in here if you won’t come get me.”
This is the time where I fire off a text to his special ed teacher to enlist his help. “He’s in the bathroom melting down. Can you help?”
The great thing is that his special ed teacher always helps. He’s worked with my son every time this happened. They’d find a quiet place for him to calm down and life would eventually go back to his normal. He’d return to settled enough to get through the day. Not settled, but settled enough to tolerate it, which, mind you, is not the goal. Feeling safe at school is the goal.
Hello! There’s an elephant in the room.
The problem is that no one at school sees how much this kid is suffering while there, because he has invisible disabilities. Invisible disabilities are a cruel curse, especially when coupled with a gifted intelligence. Most people only see what they can “see,” right? And you and I both know that most can’t see the true impact of ADHD and/or “high-functioning” autism and the experience of our kids. They don’t understand it, so they don’t see it clearly.
What they do see, they recognize as laziness or defiance, instead of what it truly is — a kid in pain and in fear, and struggling. You can’t know what you don’t know, so blame can’t be laid on teachers here. They’re not required to learn about disabilities in order to become a teacher. They can, however, trust the input of parents, which very rarely happens in my experience.
And so, there’s this elephant in the room. He’s there every time my son refuses to do classwork. Every time he gets overly agitated. Every time he texts me to come pick him up early. With every missing assignment. With every failing grade. With every email I write to teachers. The elephant is clearly there. No one is willing to acknowledge him, but he’s begging to be seen.
The elephant finally roars.
What happens when you continue to add pressure and stress without any type of release (relief)? Pretty soon it’s going to blow. My son felt more and more pressure to meet neurotypical expectations in school, and his instances of agitation were growing and growing. Some days he hid in the bathroom for a while. Some days he threatened to leave the campus and walk home. Some days he refused to go to school at all. Eventually, a few weeks into the second semester, he stopped participating in class. He’d sit through an entire math class without doing a thing, every class. His special ed teacher would try to work with him and he’d refuse. He was done with trying to fit into the round hole — he knew he couldn’t, no matter how hard everyone around him pushed. He essentially gave up.
And the elephant in the room roared. He would be ignored no longer.When the Elephant in the Room Roars: The consequences of ignoring invisible disabilities in the classroom #ADHD #Autism #specialeducationClick To Tweet
That’s when my conversation with administration about a reduced school day began. Not homeschooling, but half a day in person at school and half the day doing classes at home. This year, that was dropping one afternoon class (guided study hall essentially) and finishing PE at home. It was surprisingly easy to get the school to agree to this arrangement (I still can’t get teachers to help him record assignments in his planner in classes). I guess a giant elephant roaring in school commands some urgent attention.
At first, my son still struggled in the school environment, despite leaving at 11:30 am every day. Over the first couple weeks he slowly began to settle into his new schedule and accept that he really didn’t have to feel like he’s under siege 7 hours a day, 5 days a week anymore. Was he suddenly comfortable at school? No. Nor is the environment less assaulting while he’s there. But now, he knows that he only has to power through for three and a half hours, instead of seven, and that makes a big difference.
We aren’t yet sure what his sophomore year will look like in the Fall. The plan is to schedule him for three periods in school and one online public school class to make up the one missing period. The hope of school administrators is that he’ll work up to being able to be at school for a longer time, if not full days again. I’m more realistic, given the narrow scope of assistance he’s offered in school (even though I’ve fought hard for years to get him what he needs and deserves). I see a reduced school day being necessary under the confines of invisible disabilities in mass public education.
And so, for this school year at least, we soothed the elephant and tucked him quietly back into the corner.