In the aftermath of mass murder and rumours that the killer had Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), there have been quite a few parents (and others) questioning how they deal with their children’s meltdowns.
Well, first of all, mass murder is not a meltdown. This is important to know. Meltdowns are not planned. Mass murder, on some level, is. It really is that simple, so moving on…
There are two main causes of meltdowns – sensory overload, and frustration. The worst of meltdowns are a combination of the two.
Sensory overload is where there is too much sensory input for the brain to handle. Each person with ASD is affected differently by different stimuli. For example, I get really “high” on being in the middle of a city with lights and people and heaps of things going on. I love it! For other people with ASD, this is their worst nightmare. On the other hand, I can’t wear certain fabrics as they annoy me too much, while some people with ASD may not even notice. Even light brushing of his teeth causes one of my children pain. Brushing my teeth does not hurt, but I gag every time, sometimes to the point of throwing up. Even the same sensory “hot spot” can cause a different reaction.
Frustration is when our brains get overloaded. The most common frustration I imagine, would be not understanding social situations. ALL social situations – even those within a family or between two people (mother and child for example). Social situations can be confusing, however we can’t always escape to allow ourselves time to think and so that confusion grows and the frustration caused by not understanding grows, until we burst, one way or another.
My meltdowns are physical – my body jerks uncontrollably. My physiotherapist thinks it may be epilepsy, however I can feel the tension building up in my body, then my body jerks and the tension is gone. Sometimes it is gone for a minute, sometimes for a day or a week. This isn’t a good sort of tension, and I should really get it checked out by an expert. Sadly, I doubt I’ll be able to find one 🙂
Kids meltdown usually with “tantrums”. They cry, scream, hit out, run away, throw things, yell, call names – whatever. This is their way of releasing that tension. It’s actually a good thing, physically, because if they hold it in, they will end up with body jerks like me, is my guess. I was never allowed to do these things, and so over time… my body just can’t cope.
My eldest has meltdowns. We understand that he needs to release that tension, and so he is allowed to express himself. What he is not allowed to do is hit out, throw things, call names, etc. We are teaching him alternate and acceptable ways to release the tension – hit a pillow, go to his room and shut the door and scream – that sort of thing. I encourage him to come up with his own ways, because we are all individual and what I think of may not work for him.
Meltdowns, in one form or another, are going to happen. It’s one of the downsides of having a differently wired brain. What we need to do is teach our kids how to deal with them in a way that is appropriate. And that does not mean repress them! They NEED to happen when things get too much.
As parents, we must learn the difference between a meltdown and a good old fashioned temper tantrum. Meltdowns need to be dealt with in a way that accepts the individual as a person with individual needs. Temper tantrums on the other hand… *grin*. My kids do not get away with those!
Well, they do I guess – I don’t make them stop. However, they do not get what they want either! When dealing with a child with ASD, temper tantrums can receive the same treatment you would see fit to use with any other child. Make sure you are always fair though – nothing frustrates a child with ASD more than something not being “fair” or “just”.
So – How do you tell the difference?
As I’ve said, meltdowns are usually about sensory overload or frustration. Temper tantrums are usually about frivolous wants. What can be hard is distinguishing between actual need, and frivolous want. When N was younger, and before his diagnosis, he wanted to wear his sunglasses to school, where they were not permitted. He would occasionally have what we thought were temper tantrums, and we dealt with it accordingly. Turns out his eyes were far too sensitive, and he needed them, so mark up bad parenting moment for us.
If he had wanted the sunglasses to look cool, then that is a want, and he needs to learn that chucking a tantrum isn’t going to get him what he wants.
If he needs the sunglasses because the sun hurts his eyes, then he may have a meltdown out of frustration that we are not understanding that he “needs” them, rather than “want” them. He may be afraid of his eyes being hurt. He may be hurt if he feels we understand why he needs them, but do not care, or are choosing the rules over his comfort. He was too young to ask at the time, so we will never know for sure.
I always like to err on the side of caution. I would rather spoil my children a little, than let them grow up mistakenly believing I do not care about their needs. The big stuff, the big “wants” are easy to spot, so it’s not like I’m in danger of spoiling them TOO much 🙂
All our children are human in their own right. Whether verbal or not, whether abusive or not, they all have their own way of looking at the world. We need to reach into their world and try to imagine as best we can, what it is like for them. They are not mini-me’s. They are their own people. They are going to experience the world in their own way. Perhaps you may never understand, and that is ok. You don’t have to, if you can find it in yourself to listen, and try.
And if you muck it up, as I constantly do, apologise. People with ASD are very much about “fair” and “just” and we get that others are going to stuff up :). Learn, and move on. And most of all – listen. In one way or another, we do communicate what we need. Sometimes a meltdown is all about communication if that is the only way the child knows to communicate. By working with your child, you will both get there together, to a place where you no longer feel confused or frightened.