Separation Anxiety

Holding handsLately Katie has been struggling with what I can only call separation anxiety. This is a bit odd as she has always detached from me quite easily. Even at age three, when she transitioned into the autism program in my school district, she happily walked off with the classroom aide without a backward glance, eager to explore her new world. This fierce independence is one of the things I love about her.

But beginning this summer, Katie has paired increasing independence (“No, let KATIE do it!”) with a clinginess that both surprises and frustrates me. What is going on? One minute she is heating her own food in the microwave (when did she learn that?), and the next she is whining that she wants to sleep in my bed. She easily feeds the dog and helps me unload the dishwasher, yet refuses to wait outside the bathroom while I pee.

I wish I could ask her what’s going on, but when I do, her response is nonsensical: song lyrics or snippets of favorite books, dialogue from a video or a prior conversation. Sometimes these comical statements make sense when placed in context. For example, when I’m limping a bit after a long day in tight shoes, she says, in a perfect British accent, “My feet are killing me,” just like the terrier Tiger in the Kipper the Dog videos. Or when she’s sad about something she often says, “Hoots the owl” in a mournful tone. I have no idea how poor Hoots got linked to sadness, but somehow he did. I’m sure there are more of these gems stored in her brain but as of now they exceed the capabilities of her mouth.

Most often when I ask why she wants to sleep in my bed I get a recitation of various rules I’ve laid down over the years: no messing with the firepit, no cutting hair with scissors, no throwing dirt in the swimming pool, no playing with mommy’s makeup. I wish she had better recall of these edicts when playing in the backyard or standing in my bathroom, but for the most part I’m glad she’s memorized them. But they don’t help when trying to solve the riddle of her anxiety.

My friend Caroline asked if perhaps Katie thought I’d been threatened in some way, that kids can experience separation anxiety if they think, even mistakenly, that a parent is in danger. I’ve considered this, but it doesn’t feel right. I can’t think of anything Katie could have interpreted this way. My friend Barb pointed out that many of the things Katie is doing are what typically functioning kindergarteners do. She has the academic skills of a five-year-old, she said, why not the emotional skills to match?

Because Katie has always had the self-help skills of a child her age, I sometimes forget that her internal landscape might not match. Due to her limited ability to communicate, she may have delays I don’t know about yet. And the truth is I have little idea how the average five-year-old behaves, no reliable benchmarks from which to compare. Overall it feels as if we are headed in the correct direction, so I’m going to continue to feel my way along, to trust that this is a positive step. Because really, what else can I do?

Until next time,
Cynthia Patton

About Cynthia J. Patton

Writer, Editor, Advocate, Speaker, Special Needs Attorney, and Autism Mom. Also the Founder and Chairperson of Autism A to Z, a nonprofit providing resources and solutions for life on the spectrum.
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4 Responses to Separation Anxiety

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