The message I was about to deliver boomeranged around and smacked me in the head.
Ivars and I were excited about our return to Ohio. Anticipation occupied my mind as I rehearsed my presentation and imagined the people who would attend my workshop early the next morning at a large autism conference.
“Your books aren’t allowed in our country.”
The words stung. My chest tightened. My muscles stiffened. My face constricted. My husband’s voice broke through my shock, telling me to stay calm. His words sounded a million miles away. I was far beyond the possibility of calm. Beyond the point of no return.
For almost a decade, we had travelled in the U.S. with my self -published books with no issues. The explanation at the border was always the same: “My wife is speaking at an Autism conference and she has a table to sell her books.”
This time the response was very different. Two hours of waiting for strangers to decide that I was allowed in the country, but, my books were not. My counter arguments fell on deaf ears: I would be speaking for free and I had paid $1000 for a vendor table. The money was given to an incredible organization in Ohio that serves individuals with autism. No amount of explaining would change the result. I was a self -published author and speaker with a vendor booth and no books.
Weeks of preparation and nervous energy hijacked my emotions – a full blown, ugly cry ensued. Filled with panic my brain shut down and I begged my husband to take me home. I was done.
Thankfully, Ivars’ thinking brain was still ‘online.’ In spite of his own frustration and anger he managed to stay calm. My husband tried to reason with me: I would be letting people down. I had a presentation first thing in the morning and a video interview the next day. He played on my sense of responsibility. At that moment I was unmoved. Rational and reasonable thoughts were not possible.
Ivars problem solved while I stayed frozen in my dysregulation. He figured out where to store the books. Next, he calmly stated that we were going back into the States and I was going to do what I had promised to do. I stayed stuck but trusted his decision.
Within a few hours, I was grateful he had.
The next 5 hours of driving afforded me plenty of time to ruminate over the disappointment. But, as my blood pressure decreased and my thinking brain came back ‘online’ I was capable of considering alternatives and seeing possibilities. I was still angry and feeling somewhat ‘lost.’ However, little by little, I began to consider what I could take from the events in order to grow in compassion and empathy. The answer was obvious to me.
Many times as a mother and teacher of children with autism I had witnessed full blown meltdowns. This time I was not the observer. I had lived it. I was reminded of what an incredibly unpleasant experience it is to have your mind and your body lose control quite involuntarily.
I could preach about how we need to handle children with autism with empathy. But this experience authenticated my message. What could I take from it that would serve me in my service to educators, parents and children?
First, in the midst of the emotional hijacking, do not expect the person to think. Not possible. Avoid talking or asking questions as it just pours gas on an already raging fire.
Second, be the thinker in the moment. My husband was my brain. He did not ask me questions. Instead, he calmly guided me to where I needed to be, gently but firmly insisted on actions I was to take: “Get in the car. Hold the pillow. Breathe.” I could do those things.
Third, be the calm that is so badly needed in the storm. Ivars did not insist on my looking at the border guard, nor even speaking to him. He simply expected me to hear his calm voice and his voice only. He held me when I wanted to be held and let me go when I needed to be let go. Above all, my husband stayed calm, kind and firm. He held his own emotional ‘shit’ together.
It took me a day to recover physically and emotionally. I had what I needed to move beyond the upsetting event: a warm and trusting relationship, the knowledge and ability to use self-regulating techniques (deep breathing, positive self -talk, verbal reasoning and so on). I was able to stay cognitively flexible (once the panic attack ended) in order to choose how to handle a vendor booth with only a few books. Self- awareness helped me to understand why I was having difficulty functioning and a sense of self- esteem reminded me that I would be okay. I was still a loveable and competent.
Innate skills, learned skills and external support come together to RE- regulate an adult who experiences disappointment and shock. How very hard it must be for an individual with autism who, by the nature of their disability, lacks many of these internal skills.
How do we act in response to sudden moments of dysregulation in our students and children with autism? Are we the epitome of external support? Have we taught and practiced the self -regulation and cognitive skills before they are needed in a tough situation?
Food for thought…