Life with autism is often described as a roller coaster — long, slow steady uphill followed by precipitous drops. Lately, ours has resembled more of a fever chart, as Ryan’s moods spike wildly between happiness and explosive anger, with very little in between.
Whenever there is a sudden change in behavior, we go searching for the cause. Often, there is a trigger that can be pinpointed. Ryan and I had a perfectly wonderful weekend in Washington with almost zero issues. He and Riley got into a screaming match within five minutes of our return, and by Monday morning our house was a disaster area. Ryan got himself worked into such a state while waiting for our old friend the school bus that Veronica could do nothing to comfort him.
He was angry — even before getting to the bus stop — over his bus driver’s various rules. She has assigned seats and the children are not allowed to open the windows, and according to Ryan everyone he has to sit near is a “stupid girl.” That was all before the bus showed up late, with a substitute driver, because of course it did.
His temper continued all afternoon and again at bed time, where I tried mostly in vain to talk him down for about 20 minutes before he asked me to leave. He fell asleep quickly out of sheer exhaustion. The poor child is suffering from allergies. He has dark circles around his eyes. He looks like hell. Oh, and just for fun, his facial tic is back after mostly disappearing the last few weeks.
We didn’t have to hunt far to settle on the likely cause of this sudden onset of extreme anxiety: standardized testing.
Our state’s No Child Left Behind Act mandated standardized tests began this week. I’ll be perfectly honest — I don’t give a flying &$@# how Ryan does on the test. (OK, that’s a lie. We were thrilled when he scored at least proficient in all areas last year.) What I hate about the test is the pressure the teachers and administrators put on the kids. A few years ago, I was visiting their elementary school for career day when I spied a “XX days until the test” calendar in the front of a classroom. I was horrified.
Look, I get it. I know the schools are under immense pressure to score well on the tests.
But honestly, that’s their problem. Don’t pass it on to the kids. Both Ryan and Riley are showing the strain. When I asked Ryan if he knew why his tic was back, he told me he was trying to get it out of his system before testing began on Monday so it wouldn’t distract him. He wants to go to bed extra early because he has been told he needs a good night’s sleep. He reminded us he needs to eat a nutritious breakfast each morning.
Riley said the principal announced over the PA that the kids needed to “write until their hands fell off.” For the past week she has come home daily with a different story of a different teacher applying pressure to perform on the test. She has been near tears complaining about the stress she feels because of it. She is an honor student. She will pass with flying colors. But no amount of soothing from us can ease her worries.
With Ryan, his anxiety is reflected elsewhere and it’s taking a toll on all of us.
It is simply unfair to place the burden of the schools’ reputation on the backs of the children. Teach them, encourage them to do their best, emphasize that it matters … fine. But do not hold this test out like some horrible monster that threatens to ruin the school if they don’t ace it. I would hate this approach even if both my children were neurotypical. But with a special needs child that struggles daily with anxiety, I just wish the teachers and administrators could see the destruction this approach leaves in its wake.
A day like Monday not only takes the wind out of your sails, it leaves us all saddened and defeated. Our weekend road trip highs were but a forgotten memory by the time we got Ryan to bed. Look, if not for the standardized testing, there may well have been some other cause that produced the same result. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy about any of this.
Standardized testing, you’re officially On Notice.