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  • Writer's pictureDeirdre Azzopardi

Swimming in Fear

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

Many years ago I went to see a student in a private school for autistic adolescents. When I arrived the child was happily jumping on and off a trampoline with his occupational therapist. This young man was close to 6 foot tall and seemed like he was getting somewhat dysregulated as his glee was disorganized and somewhat manic in appearance. Within a minute of arriving back into his classroom there was a loud noise and this seemingly happy young man flipped a large table next to me. I jumped up and yelled and this child was then forcibly removed from the classroom by people who clearly knew what they were doing. It was a frightening scene.

This type of situation happens everyday in classrooms. So much fear around this child. Yes, I was scared but clearly so was the child who impulsively reacted from what I think was his already heightened state. Luckily his instructional aide was very kind and knew how to help this student return to calm but I wondered if the aide himself knew how to regulate his own nervous system because these situations are frightening for everyone involved. Fear in this situation came from many places. Fear of actual physical safety. The child’s safety and all of the people around this child were at risk. But perhaps the biggest fear is the feeling that control had been lost.

This situation may seem extreme, and it is, but fear is a familiar feeling to all parents whose children do not come into this world following the expected developmental path. The illusionary control we have as parents is shattered early and often. My own path as a parent of a son with developmental delays was full of fear. When my son was 10 months old I already knew he was not keeping up and I just didn’t want it to be true. I got him help but it was not without a lot of kicking and screaming inside. I feared that others would not understand him. I feared that he would not have friends and others would hurt him. I feared that I was unable to handle the stress coming from all of my new responsibilities. These fears were real because the threat was real. The world is not always friendly to those who take a different path.

There is also a great deal of unacknowledged fear when it comes to working with disabled children. That fear comes from sometimes not having a clue as to what to do to help a challenging child. We have our tools but children are so complex that there are times that these tools simply do not work. The fear then comes from feeling inadequate and possibly of being found out for an imposter in your colleagues or parents’ eyes.

All emotions want to be felt and acknowledged but for many of us the feelings of fear can get stuffed and turned inwards as anxiety or outwards as possibly anger and resentment. There is also the tendency to want to make it go away by trying to control every outcome. We may get straight to “fixing” the broken child so they can get back on track and we can finally breathe. Of course what message does it send to a child about their worthiness, right here and right now, when we are so consumed with fixing? Is there any wonder that the rates of anxiety and depression are so high for disabled youth? They are literally swimming in not only their own fears but from all the caring adults around them.

I think this is where mindfulness practices can really be helpful. When we connect to ourselves every day, in some way, we can feel into our experiences instead of getting caught up in our anxious thoughts. We start to ask ourselves questions like how do we want to feel around a child? Do we want to feel anxious and afraid or do we want to feel confident and clear? Do we take time to notice when we are allowing fear to push us away from seeing the beauty that is all around us? Are our judgments about a child serving or hindering them from growing? What would it feel like to model actually just feeling our feelings instead of running away? These are tough questions that I believe us adults need to ask if we want to actually serve and make a better world for ourselves and for disabled children.

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