side profile of students standing in line for a school bus

It is two days before school starts back after Christmas break, and my 11-year-old daughter who has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder has already started the “I don’t want to go to school” talk. As her parent, I am now used to the getting back to school routine: the panic that sets in for her and then the days of elevating anxiety; implementing strategies and organizing everything in preparation for her going back to school, for us.

My daughter is a very bright and able child; she learns well and progresses in line with her peers. Her difficulties do not lie in the learning of facts, but rather the processing of everything else within the classroom setting. The language used, the people, the body language and the social rules that are unspoken yet seem to be instinctively known by so many. I feel it is the school itself that sends my daughter into a panic, not the learning. It may be the amount of people, the busyness of sights and smells, the noise and the effort it can take for her to focus. I admire her so much for her progress at school, but it is difficult for me to see her anxiety increase from holiday to term time; no parent likes to see their child distressed.

This being said, as she is growing older, we are getting better at alleviating her worry and coping with the stressors of daily life in general. I say “we” because as her parent I very much travel my daughter’s journey alongside her. The professional help just isn’t readily available for my daughter. Not only are you put on waiting lists for months, but if you don’t
follow up the requests with emails and phone calls, the therapy just doesn’t get offered. So, like many other parents I’m sure, much of my daughter’s support is through learning about strategies myself through books, websites and shared ideas from other parents.

One thing that is really helping my daughter with the transition of getting back to school is the use of tick lists and timetables. A structure to the day and the reassurance that everything has been done seems to greatly comfort her and alleviate some of the stress. Once a task is complete, we tick it off the list and go onto the next task until everything has been done. The visual structure to these lists seems to take away a lot of worry and can make us all a lot more productive. As well as tick lists, we also practice strategies to relieve anxiety, which include listening to audio books, breathing techniques and talking about her worries to make them go away. We seem to have learnt many strategies over the years to alleviate anxiety, but these are what work best for us.

It is always difficult to watch my daughter struggle with the transition of going back to school. I know school can cause her additional stress, but I have come to accept that these types of transitions may always cause her to be uncomfortable and invoke stress for her. I have learned I can’t take these stressful things away for her, no matter how much I would like to, but what I can do is build her confidence to such a place where she can feel the stress and anxiety and reduce it to a comfortable level herself. That being said, like our journey so far, it takes small baby steps that build together to bring us to that place, but I believe my daughter can achieve all that she desires; she may just need additional help and support to get her there.

Image via Thinkstock.

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From the beginning, my son wasn’t much of a smiler. We could never get him to do it on command. By the time he was 1, Jasper looked either anxious or furious most days. Relatives, nurses, friends and strangers would try to get him to crack a grin, as if a serious baby was a danger, an affront to the definition of a child. “What does that little guy have to be so worried about?” a man once asked while we were out walking a new city.

At 2, we took him to a photographer’s studio; I thought that’s what parents were suppose to do — get professional pictures taken of their children to hand out to family members. Though the light in the studio was perfect that afternoon, and my son appeared to be glowing, I had trouble picking out pictures I thought my parents or anyone else would understand. Jasper appeared worried in all of them, his eyes looking away rather than into the lens of the camera.

He used to cry a lot back then. To calm himself, he’d study things like the rotating blades of fans or wires coming out of the walls. Looking back, I think he was trying to make sense of the world, a place into which he often struggled to fit. At 7, after years of frustration and bewilderment, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Though his autism is not always visible, it is always there.

Now at 9, Jasper still doesn’t smile for photographs. Often, he refuses to be in pictures at all. And while, for some reason, this seems to bother a lot of people, I’ve learned to accept it.

“C’mon, smile,” is a common request. And one to which many kids might respond by turning on their “picture smiles,” the ones we’re often trained since birth to master. But my son doesn’t have that kind of cute, forced grin.

It’s caused some conflict during group outings, when my friends’ children pile onto picnic tables and look adorable, ready for a photo op. Everyone shouts for Jasper to get in the picture, too, but he doesn’t come. For our annual family reunion, my mom’s dream is to gather all of her grinning grandchildren around her for a picture. Jasper’s refusal to smile, or to be present in the picture at all, might be seen as a refusal of love and also, I suppose, ineffective parenting on my part.

“Get in the picture,” I used to tell my son.

“No,” he’d shout back.

“Get in the picture, now!” Embarrassed, frustrated and confused, I was always aware that people were watching.


By the time my son was diagnosed with autism, I had given up trying to force him to pose for pictures. In part because I was tired. Demanding that my child act like other kids was exhausting, for both of us. At the same time, I was beginning to understand how being a parent meant helping my son be himself in the world. It meant supporting the particular choices he needed to make, even if those weren’t the choices of other kids.

Not too long ago, we bought Jasper a camera. At group gatherings, he’s become our unofficial photographer. Nobody tells the photographer to smile. Have you noticed that? Likewise, no one stares at the actual person behind the camera. Everyone is too busy staring into the lens.

When he’s taking photos, Jasper doesn’t count down from three. He doesn’t say, “Cheese!” or try to aim the camera from a flattering angle. He takes the picture when he wants to. Often, we end up looking unprepared, or should I say: real.

I love the family photos my son takes.

And when he takes pictures of his classmates, or of his sister, and shares them with me, I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a private exchange. The expressions on the other children’s faces feel so sincere and secret. I’ve never heard him tell anyone to smile when he’s about to take a picture.

Jasper brings his camera along on outings when he can. I think he likes the world better when he looks at it through a viewfinder, framing the setting, taking in only as much as he wants, zooming in, zooming in some more. Lately, he’s been editing out all the color of the photos he takes, turning a bright summer scene into something that’s dark, moody, mysterious, but also beautiful in its own way. Maybe this is how he sees the world. Or maybe this is how he wishes the world would be.

Image via Jasper Urbanski.

A version of this post originally appeared on Motherwell.

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