Hey there, and welcome back. Hope you had a great Valentine's Day with the one you love most. Today I thought we might talk about one of the things that can make Autism so scary for those who don't have a lot of experience with it, namely Meltdowns.
Now before I ramble too far, l should point out that there is a distinct difference between a Temper Tantrum and a Meltdown, and as a result the way you handle one can be extremely different as well. With a classic temper tantrum, the person throwing the tantrum is very aware of what is going on; and with good reason. A temper tantrum is nothing more than an attempt to get one's own way in what is commonly held to be a socially unacceptable method. Most children out grown temper tantrums by the time they're in elementary school by learning (often the hard way) that temper tantrums are more likely to bring unpleasant results than rewards. But our point here is that the person throwing the temper tantrum always knows what going on around them, because they're busy trying to gauge the reaction of those they're trying to influence. Indeed, if you watch a child having such a tantrum, you'll often notice little pauses and sly glances where the child is trying to see just how successful they're being; and if everyone around them is continuing to ignore them they'll stop. The same if it looks like mommy and daddy are getting mad and punishment might be imminent. So for these types of misbehaviors traditional discipline (rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior) works just fine. But a meltdown is a horse of another color all together.
Now I must admit that sometimes a meltdown does start off as a temper tantrum, especially if the child is young. But this really isn't all that common (or at least it wasn't for my son); and even if it does, once it hits meltdown then all the rules for dealing with a tantrum go right out the window. You see, in a true meltdown a child (or even adult) on the autism spectrum seems to get locked into some kind of internal loop where most external stimuli can't register well enough to break through. Once this happens the person in meltdown mode is more or less lost in their own mind with no way out except through; an experience that can be truly terrifying for both the person going through it and those around him or her! If it can be caught early enough in the cycle, sometimes something as simple as a hug can help to stop the meltdown in it's tracks. I've also had luck with silly humor (sticking a pencil in my ear and talking into my shoe for example) and jokes. But once the meltdown reaches a certain point, all you can do is wait it out and try to make sure the person going through one doesn't accidentally hurt themselves or others. There have actually been times when I've had to use my martial arts training to subdue my son during a meltdown, and you can have no idea how heartbreaking that can be if you've never had to do it yourself. For the rest of the family, and this is what I've very carefully instructed all of my mom's companions to do, the best and safest thing is to simply get out of his way and let him work through it on his own. Fortunately before my health issues caused me to lose my job, I was able to get Wills some private therapy which has greatly decreased the number of meltdowns as well as shortening the length of time they last.
So what can you do if you find yourself needing to dealing with a family member who suffers meltdowns? Well the first thing to do is to learn to be aware of them and what's going on with them at all times. Very much the same sort of situational awareness that you should be practicing for the purpose of self defense, just narrowed down to one person (and yes, you can narrow it down to your loved one and still maintain it for your surroundings as well. It isn't easy at first, but it can be done). You also have to understand them on a rather deep level and learn to recognize the triggers that can lead to a meltdown. In my case, if my son starts talking about certain cartoon characters in certain ways then I know it's time to try to distract him before a meltdown occurs. But how do you distract them?
Every one is different, so what works for me might not work as well for you, but there are a few things you can try. And once you find things that work, you can start modifying them to work better for your situation. For my son, hugs are often a great way to head off a meltdown; and it makes sense if you think about it. A big ole' bear hug tells him that he is loved, and makes him feel safe. It reinforces the fact that he is not alone and that his mommy and daddy will do anything they can for him.
As I mentioned earlier in this ramble, another thing that works well for us is humor. My son has a great sense of humor, even if he is rather silly at times, and getting him laughing breaks the train of thought that is leading him to a meltdown and gives him something more enjoyable to think about. After all, I'd much rather deal with Silence! the pirate than a son who is locked into a dreadful loop that keeps him from realizing what is happening around him and what he's actually doing! And besides, I'm sure that dirty rotten stuffed parrot deserved to walk the plank anyway! Silly bird. Imagine not knowing when to be silent!
Another item that often works great for many families is a Calm Down Box. This is just a simple toy box or bin filled with things the child enjoys, such as puzzles, colored pencils and paper, games the child can play by him or her self, play dough or modeling clay, and things like that. Plus, at least for us, putting one together is a great way to spend time with your child and getting them to help decide what goes into it will help assure that they'll be more willing to use it when things get rocky.
I could go on for quite a while suggesting other things you can try. I could, but instead I think I'm going to give you some homework of a sort. Dealing with meltdowns means knowing your child, grandchild, niece, or nephew as well as you possibly can. Yet it can be extremely frustrating as well, especially since so many people on the autism spectrum have communication difficulties. So I'm going to recommend a few books that I found extremely helpful with links to where you can get them on Amazon.
The first, and the one that helped me the most, is The Reason I Jump by Naomi Higashida. Written when the author was only 13 years old, this is a first hand account of what it's like to have autism.
Two others are Look Me In The Eye by John Elder Robinson and Thinking In Pictures by Temple Gradin.
For some more suggestions on how to manage meltdowns, and hopefully keep them from happening I found No More Meltdowns by Dr. Jed Baker to be extremely useful. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but his book is still hands down the best I've found so far.
And finally, a new one (to me anyway) that I wish I had found sooner, there's 101 Games and
Activities for Children With Autism, Ausbergers, and Sensory Processing Disorders.
Are these suggestions and books a magic bullet that will make everything hunky dory and your life all sweetness and light? Oh hell no. But they may make things easier and more manageable, and that's all we can really ask for, right? But for now I must get ready to head to the smoke house where I'm working part time now. So I'll wish you luck, and remember. If somethings worth doing, then it's worth doing with attitude!