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Sometimes my son is afraid, and that's okay


Nolan has developed some legitimate fears over his 16-plus years on this planet. I wish he didn’t have those fears, but I can sympathize with him.


For example, I understand why one bad encounter with a neighbor’s dog several years ago triggered what has become genuine terror anytime he’s in close proximity to a canine. No amount of reassuring can convince him that the floppy-eared, panting ball of fur staring him down is completely harmless, because he knows better. I still feel that way about stuffing, which I haven’t eaten in 45 years thanks to the way it made me blow chow the last time I consumed it.


Some of his fears are head-scratchers to me. Cindy has asthma, which can wreak havoc on her when she’s either sick or battling seasonal allergies. There’s something about her cough that can make Nolan sob even though he’s typically wearing noise-canceling headphones. I start hacking, and he doesn’t even flinch. Cindy coughs, and he’s inconsolable.


And some fears, such as last Tuesday morning when Nolan absolutely, positively refused to descend the front steps and walk to the waiting school bus parked in front of our house even though he’d walked down the exact same stairs with the day before with no issues, can come and go without any warning.


Cindy and I have no idea how Nolan’s now it’s here, now it’s gone anxiety originated because he has Autism and is nonverbal. Perhaps he’d inadvertently slipped on a wet step when he wasn’t with either of us, or maybe he’d had a misstep while going to the second floor of the elementary school he attended that went unreported to his teacher, and ultimately us. All we know is that at our last house, which was a tri-level, he decided one morning when he was in fifth grade that he was not, under any circumstances, walking down the steps leading from the top floor to the living room when it was time to leave for school.


We – or mainly I, because Cindy had to leave for work – tried everything from being patient and waiting him out to frantically telling him, perhaps a little louder than I should have, that we had to leave now, but it made no difference. This went on for about two hours before Nolan finally stood up at the top of the stairs, walked down and let me know he was ready to leave. And it continued every morning for more than a week despite attempts to help make the stairs less frightening – we put up LED lights, we put down carpet squares, and we ripped them out a few days later when they made no difference – before it just stopped.


I discovered when Nolan was in middle school that climbing stairs also could be harrowing for him. I started getting texts from Nolan’s teacher about the time he was in seventh grade that he was refusing to board the bus on the days he and his classmates were scheduled to go swimming at a local assisted living facility for adaptive physical education class. I walked him to the school bus every morning and watched him board it without hesitation. But for whatever reason – it wasn’t a yellow bus, or the steps didn’t feel right – Nolan more often than not wanted no part of those stairs.


To be honest, I’d put those past instances of Nolan’s trepidation with steps out of my mind before last Tuesday morning. It’s wintertime here in the Upper Midwest, where snow-shoveling is considered the fifth major sport from Thanksgiving to Easter. I go out of my way to make sure the front and side steps at our house have as little snow on them as possible. I’d also dumped a fair amount of salt on the front steps for good measure.


The morning school day routine can be challenging, but Nolan was doing very well that particular day and we were right on schedule. The bus pulled up in front of our house. I helped Nolan with his coat and backpack, opened the front door, held it open for him and waited for him to leave the house. He tentatively put one foot on the top step, then quickly pulled it back in.


Hmmm, I thought – what’s going on? Oh, yeah – he was wearing his backpack. I always wait until he’s at the bottom of the steps before I help him put it on. That’s got to be why he’s a little skittish.


I removed the backpack and held out my hand for him. He again put his foot on the top step and withdrew it just as quickly. I pointed at the step and told him, “See? There’s no ice here. It’s OK, pal – come on down. The bus is waiting.” He tried again once, maybe twice, and beat a hasty retreat back to the living room.


I dashed out to the bus and explained to the driver what was happening. She told me she was willing to wait a couple of minutes and asked if perhaps Nolan could use the steps on the side of our house. Cindy had warned me that they were slippery because I’d forgotten to salt them, so I told her that wasn’t an option. I ran back to the house, asked Nolan to try walking down the steps again – this time with a little more of a sense of urgency in my voice – and insisted he would not fall because I would be holding his hand. He responded with an emphatic yell that translated to, “Pops, I’m telling you those steps aren’t safe! No way!”


It became abundantly clear after another 60 to 90 seconds that Nolan would not be exiting our house via the front door. I ran back to the bus and told the driver I realized she needed to leave and that I would text Nolan’s teacher about what was happening. Nolan would be going to school in the dad taxi; that is, if I could get him to the garage. And the only way to do so was to use the side door and steps – you remember, the slippery ones I hadn’t salted.


But Nolan being the unpredictable young man that he is, he walked down those steps with very little hesitation, went to my car, and I drove him to school – and, I might add, we got there on time too. I spent part of the rest of the morning wondering why he’d balked at going down the front steps. Was there indeed ice that I wasn’t seeing? Was it just a matter of there being a welcome mat at the top of the side steps that gave him the confidence he needed to take that first step?


I took a chance that it was the latter and asked Cindy to pick up a mat for our front steps before she got home. It was in place Tuesday afternoon, but a dusting of snow covered it overnight. I started wondering if I’d be driving Nolan to school from now until the spring thaw. But he went down the steps and walked to the bus with no trepidation Wednesday morning, and the rest of the week. Did the presence of the welcome mat make a difference? Maybe, maybe not.


It seems that Nolan’s anxiety has passed, but I know it could return with the next snowfall, or maybe on a day where it’s perfectly safe to walk down the steps, but there will be a suspicious looking shadow that looks dangerous to him. The things I take for granted as being harmless can appear to be horrifying to my son. The fear he feels is genuine, and sometimes I still forget that.


All I can do is be as patient as humanly possible, tell him I understand that he’s afraid and let him know I’m there to help him through it in any way I can.

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