Tantrums And Meltdowns, Oh My!
We've been having some problems lately, and it while my son has gotten much better about controlling these problems over the years, it can still be rather frustrating at time. Indeed, sometimes it can get down right scary; and it's never easy to handle no matter how experienced we have become over the years. Oh, I'm sorry, didn't I explain what these problems are? It's simple really, Wills, like many on the autism spectrum, experiences meltdowns from time to time.
"Oh, come on!" I hear some of you saying. "He's a young teenager by now! Surely you've taught him not to throw temper tantrums by now." Ah, the blessed stupidity of ignorance. Sorry, didn't mean to insult you, but really, you are ignorant. Not in the insulting, you couldn't handle the truth/you're a moron sort of way; but rather in the simple never learned something sort of way. You see, contrary to what many people with little or no experience with those on the autistic spectrum believe, there is a huge difference between a temper tantrum and a meltdown.
For starters, when all's said and done, a temper tantrum is an attempt by the person "throwing" it to get their own way. Yes, for neurotypical children that normally happens in the toddler years when they don't have a vocabulary to express their desires and haven't learned acceptable behavior quite yet. And yes, children on the autistic spectrum have them as well, sometimes many years after their neurotypical peers have learned better. But in the end, even when it's the result of frustration, a temper tantrum is a controlled act designed to achieve a specific goal. As a result you'll often see certain things if you look closely enough. For starters, the person throwing the tantrum is depending on the reactions of those around them. Thus you'll often notice them stopping briefly to check those reaction to see if anyone is paying attention. If everyone continues to ignore them, most likely they'll stop when they realize that they aren't getting anywhere. The same if they manage to achieve their goal, what ever it may have been in the first place; and they'll stop very quickly as well. You will also notice that the person throwing the tantrum will try their best to use the social situation they find themselves in to their advantage. For example getting loader or continuing on longer than they might otherwise when in a public place where they think others may sympathize with them, such as when they want a particular brand of cereal or some toy at a crowded supermarket. And perhaps most telling of all (though only a complete fool or sociopath would think to test this) they are aware of their surroundings and will be as careful as is normal for them to keep from getting hurt.
Meltdowns on the other hand are the proverbial horse of a different color. For starters, a true meltdown is caused by the autistic child becoming overwhelmed. What causes them to be overwhelmed can be different from incident to incident and child to child. It can be sensory or mental or emotional. But what ever triggers the meltdown, the results are pretty much the same. In the end, the child (or even some adults on the autism spectrum) finds themselves overloaded to the point where they simply cannot deal with what ever stimulus is acting on them and they need desperately to escape it, but cannot. Thus they find themselves locked in to themselves with very little if any awareness of what is going on around them. They won't pay any attention to those around them, indeed they might not even be able to recognize that there are people around them or who those people are. Nor are they able to distinguish new sensations or thoughts, thus while a child throwing a temper tantrum will not hit things hard enough to hurt themselves, a child experiencing a true meltdown often doesn't even realize that they are hurting themselves if they start things. They might even start hitting themselves or others. Nor is there anyway to cut a meltdown short. Once it starts, the only way out is through. The stimuli causing the meltdown has to be removed in some way, but that won't end the meltdown immediately. Indeed, it may well last for a long, long time afterwards; and a scary time that will be as well since it will be obvious to anyone who knows the child that no one is in control in any way shape or form. Sometimes a meltdown can be cut off at the pass so to speak. There are normally some signs of an approaching melt down that may allow the parent to derail things before it gets to be too much for the child to handle. With my son, the trigger is frustration more often than not, and he will start talking in circles; endlessly repeating the same three to five sentences or phrases over and over again. If, and that is a big if, but if we can spot the signs early enough we can sometimes get him to switch from whatever is causing him to feel frustrated to some other activity. Maybe get him to try a game on the computer instead of the WiiU, or build something with Legos instead of continuing to draw whatever he is having troubles drawing. But Wills, like many on the autism spectrum, is a perfectionist, and getting him to change activities can be a real challenge at times. And considering he's now taller than I am, the result of failing to head off a meltdown can be truly terrifying! At this age, at least for Wills, the best thing we can do most of the time is leave him alone and let him work his way through things on his own. We do need to monitor him to make sure he doesn't hurt himself or others of course, but any form of stimuli, whether it be talking to him or giving him a hug, will more likely than not just cause the meltdown to last even longer. On the rare occasion he does turn violent however, the only thing we can do is get everyone away from him except possibly for myself. Fortunately I'm still stronger than he is, and will be for the foreseeable future; and thus if it should be needed I can use my martial arts training to subdue him and keep him from hurting himself or others, but oh how I hate to do that. For one thing, it's guaranteed to cause the meltdown last 2 or 3 times longer than it might otherwise; but more importantly in some ways is the mental anguish and pain I feel whenever I find myself forced to treat my own son as an opponent. Thank God I haven't found myself in that position in almost a year now, but I still feel the fear that this time I might once again be forced to subdue him one more time.
Still, as I said at the beginning of this little ramble, Wills has gotten much better at controlling his meltdowns. In fact, there have been a few times when he has actually come to us for help before a meltdown could begin; for which I thank God on an almost daily basis. And as he grows, and gets more and more control of himself, hopefully he'll get better and better at recognizing the danger signals and derailing the meltdowns himself. Who knows, some day he might even get enough control that he'll never have a meltdown again. I'm not holding my breath in anticipation of that day though.
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