The Butterfly Effect

Highschoolboy is having a really hard year in algebra II. I don’t think he is headed for a college degree in mathematics, to put it mildly. He had made some progress on the last few tests, bringing his grade up and even received an A on a quiz. Unfortunately right before vacation, he messed up the latest test. I chalk it up to him being really anxious right before the vacation and the fact that the new anxiety medication has not kicked in yet. He actually had not told me about the test result until yesterday. I guess he needed to digest the grade himself.

As I have mentioned before HSB does not like when he does not do well in school. He is learning to adjust his behavior and his study habits to meet the new requirements of time and effort but it is an ongoing learning experience for him.  The interesting thing about this post-test experience was just how calm he was when he explained to me what happened. He told me the grade and that his case manager was working with him on the test corrections. I asked what happened, and of course he gave the patterned response that he probably needs to study more, but then he gave an interesting analysis of what happened on the test. One little mistake, leads to another and then another until the entire answer is wrong. He compared it to the “Butterfly Effect.” No not the movie from years ago with Ashton Kutcher, but the scientific theory that states if a butterfly flaps its wings in Asia, there will be a wind storm in the Americas. It talks about how one thing leads to another, and another, and another; each seemingly random and independent but when added together create the present situation

It actually dawned on me, how HSB and collegeman live a real world Butterfly Effect. Seemingly independent variables create their day. They process and synthesize what happens each step of the way. But sometimes during their journey they stop processing for one reason or another. It could be a panic attack (like with collegeman during finals) or a sensory overload (when the noises get too loud for HSB.) or just a new situation that they are totally unprepared for. A simple transition into a new semester or a new class or a different routine at the movies too. What happens is that they shut down. Any processing ceases. Everything that comes after the trigger just piles on to the already over the top situation.

Ripples form in their mind, like the ripples in the air made by the butterfly wings. They keep growing and growing until they explode, causing a storm. Now this is where you, therapists and teachers come in. The idea is to help them prevent a Butterfly Effect from overtaking them. They need to understand what their triggers are. They need to understand what causes their triggers. They need to understand how they can modulate their behavior if they become overwhelmed. They need to know how to process the situation if exiting is not an option. They need to know how to take care of themselves if a seemingly insurmountable situation does occur. They basically need to understand themselves and how to help themselves.

Yeah, easier said than done you say. But it is doable. First, they need to take ownership of this issue. Like with everything else our children need to deal with, the first step is to understand that this is an issue and while we can teach them the steps to overcome the panic, they need to be fully invested in overcoming it themselves. In fact, they need to understand that they and they alone will end up helping themselves. That the world will not adjust to them and that they need to find ways to adjust to how to handle the world. Do they like this reality? I don’t think anyone likes this reality. Even the neurotypical needs to get along in this world and learn the social norms. There are ways to behave and no one is going to make sure that your child gets a free ride. So teach them to invest in themselves, by understanding their issues and owning them. Let them acknowledge that something is a problem and let them acknowledge that they need to do something about it.

Remember when I spoke about collegeman’s art grade being downgraded because of his behavior. He finally got what we were talking about that talent and intelligence will get you only so far. Social IQ is so important. He has asked for help, and we talked to the therapist about working with him on these issues. The therapist was very glad to hear that collegeman was finally going to take ownership of the issue. No matter how many times they have worked on calming down, recognizing your triggers and not letting your panic overtake you, collegeman had never been invested in the idea that it makes a difference. Now he knows, none of us are idiots. We are not being cruel or evil or pain in the ass parents/coaches. We actually have his best interests at heart. So I am excited about starting therapy again today. Collegeman has decided to make a new investment in himself and that is good.

HSB has decided to also make an investment in himself, somewhat. I think for right now algebra II is going to be his investment. Also dealing with his anxiety as it gets closer to midterms is also something we are going to get him help with. I know it was the panic that hindered his last algebra test. The anxiousness about the upcoming vacation and the need to do better on the last math test, as his grades were going up, all added to his Butterfly Effect.

A dear friend of mine, whose son also has aspergers, has just gone back to college and just finished taking algebra II. She had a terrible time of it; until her professor told her the secret…there is no special or secret answer. Algebra is just numbers, like addition and subtraction. It just looks different on the page with a few new rules. My friend got a B. HSB, when I tried that tact, looked at me like I was an idiot and remarked to the effect that he would never take a class from that professor, since that professor obviously didn’t know the difference between basic math and algebra. Aspie literalness at work again!

Anyway, HSB will try to work on his algebra II. Learning to control his anxiety, not letting one little flap of his wings create a tsunami. Meanwhile, collegeman is on school break. Calm and quiet. Taking possession of his issues and hopefully starting to tackle those issues that he finally admits needs work.

I remember as a 5 year old falling head over heels in love with the monarch butterfly. Still love them. Have a bunch of butterfly trees in my front yard to attract them. I wonder, however,  when they flap their wings here is there a wind storm in Asia?


Until next time,




About Elise Ronan

#JeSuisJuif #RenegadeJew... I am, therefore I write...
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4 Responses to The Butterfly Effect

  1. Elaine says:

    I have a student in my class who has regular meltdowns and we don\’t know why. We\’ve tried so hard to find the trigger and help him by using calming tequniques before it happens but its so many things and sometimes we can\’t understand what. He has no communication or language and we use objects to communicate with him as he appears to have no understanding of words or pictures . Its often hunger that triggers it, different or new people in the room , when he needs a poo, all of which we look out for and try to avoid trouble . However he still becomes agitated, tearful, hits himself and others for no evident reason. His mother also doesn\’t know what causes it sometimes . Bless him he is gorgeous and we all love him dearly and would do whatever it takes to help him but , as you point out,, once hes started it escalates and sometimes lasts all afternoon, even in a quiet room away from stress. Incidently, myself and staff have all been scratched, nipped and our hair pulled very painfully but would in no way imagine restraining him or shouting at him or calling the police !! Makes a mockery of zaks case doesn\’t it?

  2. Elise says:

    Elaine-I think the difference between you and those teachers is that you actually care about the children in your care and are there to try to help them a best you can. It is about the children not about you. That\’s the difference. The teachers, in fact the school district, in Zac\’s case appear to care about themselves and not providing the support this child truly needs.

  3. J. says:

    With my sons, an apt analogy is that of carrying a tray on one hand. We all are given this tray, and every day we start with empty trays. As we go through our day, glasses of water (stressors-good and bad) are added to our tray. "Normies" can carry generally all the glasses we\’re given. Autistics are given more glasses. Say it has snowed. There\’ a glass. A new shirt with a stiff tag=2. A substitute bus driver =3, a change from the published bfast menu=5. Kids arrive at class with trays already tipping.

  4. Elise says:

    I remember someone explained it with the "spoon" analogy just like people do to explain fibromyalgia or lupus. Except the spoons get taken away, but here they are added until they tip over.

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