Let’s talk about meltdowns. Big ones, little ones, scary spine tingling meltdowns. In my past life, before I had my own children with unique needs, I was a special education teacher. You might think that choosing this particular profession was a happy accident. After all, several years teaching, my husband and I started our own family. We are the happy and proud parents of three beautiful daughters, two of which are on the autism spectrum.
Our middle daughter has boundless energy, the result of ADHD. You would think that I would be the most prepared parent in the universe. I taught self-contained special education for several years. I was fortunate to have experience with a wide range of different students with various disabilities. When my own daughters were diagnosed with special needs, everyone assumed that I was fully equipped to handle any sort of crisis be it minor or major.
Let me start off by saying that teaching and parenting are two entirely different adventures. The biggest difference, in my opinion, is that your children are your children. It is much easier to get students to follow rules and routines. Also, you are not necessarily as emotionally invested in your students as you are your children. Another major difference is when your student has a meltdown at school, no one bats an eye. When your child has a nuclear meltdown at Target, people tend to take notice. I can vouch for this particular scenario.
One glorious summer afternoon, when my oldest daughter was about 8, she wanted me to purchase the latest toy for her at Target. After I attempted to explain that we did not need one more toy to add to our collection (social stories sometimes work in these situations), my daughter abruptly threw herself to the ground and started to scream. Being experienced in the autism meltdown by this stage of the game, I knew that I was in for a doozy. No amount of pleading, crying or bribery from me would work at this point.
I initially thought, “I can wait this out.” You know what I mean. You keep casually walking through the store pretending your beautiful little angel isn’t throwing herself on the ground and screaming relentlessly. I did mention she was 8 at the time, right? This is an important fact because most people find it socially unacceptable for 8 year olds to have public tantrums. Most people think if your 8 year old is having a public tantrum, you are a bad parent. Thankfully I have a really thick skin. Also thankfully, I did not have to drag her kicking and screaming out of Target. My knight in shining armor saved the day! Actually, my husband/knight took our little beauty out to the car to ride out the duration of her meltdown. I was able to finish shopping in blissful peace (as close to peace as one can get at Target).
The thing is, once a meltdown starts, there is absolutely no predictability of its course. It is the equivalent of riding on an out-of-control train. It might last a minute, an hour, many hours. No one knows for sure? It’s one of life’s great mysteries. All joking aside, meltdowns can be really traumatic for everyone involved. Your child is screaming and crying and most of the time you have no idea what caused him/her to launch into a nuclear meltdown. You want to comfort your little one (or your 14 year old), but she lashes out when you try to touch her. You, the parent are confused, frustrated, and embarrassed by your sudden celebrity (everyone within a 2 mile radius seems to be staring directly at you). Meanwhile, if you have other children with you (siblings), you are also trying to wrangle and reassure them that everything will be alright (or, if you have tweens or teens, you are trying to explain to them that people are not posting pictures of them to social media sites).
Meltdowns are not typical tantrums! They can start and end without warning or provocation. When a child with autism is in the throws of a meltdown, you cannot reason with her. But you do have some options.
You can allow your child to continue his/her meltdown if the environment is safe (not applicable at stores or really anywhere outside your home). You can leave the store, park, anywhere in public and retreat to your vehicle to ride out the meltdown. If, like me, you have an older child, you might not be able to physically get your child to leave the store, park, or wherever you happen to be. In this case, you have to be creative and think quickly. With higher functioning children, sometimes the suggestion that a classmate might see her brings some sense of awareness.
The most important thing I’ve found is to remember you can handle the situation. You are strong and you are an advocate for your child. If people stare, sometimes the best thing to do is explain why your child is upset. Or, on those really trying days, just smile, wave and pretend you’re on the red carpet!