This Wednesday started like every other Wednesday. Caroline woke up and started using her sign for horseback riding. She looks forward to therapeutic horseback riding all week – it is one of her favorite activities.
When we arrived at the barn Caroline was full of energy and excitement. She ran over to the viewing area to see if the horses had been saddled up yet. When she discovered they had not she went and rode the barrel horse for a moment. Then she remembered about the barn cat – she signed for cat – and began to look for him. In every way, this week had been like every other.
But then something happened causing me to realize how to delicately Caroline’s world must be balanced so it does not swing off its axis.
A new volunteer approached me and told me she would be sidewalking with Caroline that day. I did not think much of it. Caroline has been horseback riding once a week for almost a year and while she has had the same sidewalker most of the time, she has worked with other people with no issue – but not this day.
Caroline started unraveling as the new person helped her put on her helmet and then with each step she took toward her horse, I could see the anxiety wash over her body. By the time Caroline mounted her horse she was crying uncontrollably and signing “mommy” and “all done”.
I was at a loss.
I ran to the car to retrieve Caroline’s beloved stuffed eel – hoping that maybe he would provide some comfort during her session. Eel eased Caroline’s anxiety for less than a minute. After 10 minutes of intense efforts by staff and volunteers we decided that Caroline was just too upset to finish her lesson.
After Caroline dismounted her horse, staff took her back to the stables to let her meet one of the mini horses. Caroline declined and continued to sign “all done”.
The following week when Caroline arrived home from school she immediately communicated to us that she did not want to go to horseback riding. When I tried to put on her jeans she threw them on the floor. I knew (sensed, really) if Caroline did not go to horseback riding this week it would amplify her anxiety. So we packed up the car and headed to horseback riding. Caroline cried the entire way there – as a point of reference Caroline normally cries when I make stop on the way to horseback riding.
Caroline cried as she walked into the stable, signed “mommy” and “all done”. She screamed as her helmet was placed on her head. Her tensions eased a bit when we told her she could take her stuffed Peppa Pig with her. After Caroline mounted her horse, she cried and protested for a bit but within in a couple of minutes she was enjoying herself again – thanks to the amazing efforts by staff and volunteers to help Caroline relax. By the second half of the lesson when the class goes on a trial ride, Caroline was demonstrating skills she hadn’t demonstrated before.
The next Wednesday, Caroline sobbed as she mounted her horse but calmed down relatively quickly although she never completely relaxed.
One small change threw Caroline’s world into total and complete havoc. For the most part Caroline deals with transition well. We generally try to warn her either verbally or with a social story when a change is coming but even when we haven’t been able to in the past Caroline’s easy going spirit has helped her deal with change and transition. But the trauma of having a new sidewalker has caused a formerly cherished activity to become overwhelming and emotional for going on 4 weeks now. As with every event like this, I am left wondering will this level of anxiety and difficulty with transition become our new normal?