Thirty seconds before the meltdown isn’t a lot of time. Any parent of an autistic child knows what the word meltdown means. For those of you that may not know what I’m talking about, the easiest way to describe a meltdown is a physical and emotional chaotic storm. You may think it’s the same as a tantrum or bad behavior. But it’s not.
All children have bad days, right?
A meltdown is not a bad day. It’s an overload of the senses. I have witnessed and personally experienced my fair share of meltdowns as an autistic woman who has three daughters, two who are on the spectrum. A meltdown can happen anywhere and anytime. My daughters have experienced them at home, school, the grocery store and just about anyplace else you can think of.
We have been starred at, pointed at and whispered about during these meltdowns. The old saying “mind your own business” doesn’t seem to apply when your child is screaming at the top of their lungs at Target because they didn’t get to rearrange all the Barbie dolls in the toy aisle.
What happens right before the actual meltdown itself?
I don’t have an apparent answer. Let’s rewind to thirty seconds before the meltdown started. Sometimes the reason is “in your face” obvious. I remember when my, then 8-year old daughter, was told by a relative that she could have a new iPod. When we arrived at the store to purchase the iPod, our relative realized it was more expensive than she thought and couldn’t get one for her.
Of course, this relative knew that my daughter is autistic.
Once my daughter realized she couldn’t have what she was promised, she had a massive meltdown right in the middle of the electronics aisle. She was on the floor kicking and screaming. Luckily my husband was with us, and was able to take her out of the store.
As you can imagine, people were staring wide eyed right at her and me as her parent. That was over ten years ago. I have learned a lot since then about what triggers my daughters. Right before a meltdown occurs, there is a brief moment when I can see and sense the rage, misunderstanding and anger that my daughters are experiencing.
In the thirty seconds before the storm hits, I can usually take action. Often, I can see the tension in my daughters’ bodies. I can witness the clenched fists, red faces and tears.
Keep in mind that this is not a temper tantrum.
This is the way many autistic people express their frustrations and emotional overload. Autistics often become overwhelmed by their environment and situations. They have full body reactions due to sensory overload or not being able to express what they’re feeling.
Thirty seconds before the meltdown, I always try to anticipate how to best accommodate my daughters’ needs right at a particular moment in time. There are, of course, times when I can’t do anything but ride the wave until it crashes. Then there are times when I am able to lessen or even diffuse a meltdown.
Here are some of the ways that have worked for our family:
- Sometimes my girls are overstimulated by their environment. I often carry a collection of sensory toys, small stress balls or squishy putty in my purse. They are small and easy to access, and provide sensory stimulation and relief. You would be amazed at how a small sensory toy can calm children even when they are close to a meltdown.
- When my oldest daughter becomes overwhelmed, I can verbally tell her that I see her becoming increasingly stressed out. I can remind her that she can take a break and go to her room or another quiet place to self-calm. Sometimes just reminding your child that it is okay to be upset can be helpful in preventing a full blown meltdown.
- If we don’t have the option of avoiding a meltdown, I make sure my daughters are in a safe place where they cannot injure themselves.
One last thing, if people stare, and they probably will, it’s okay to educate them about autism. Let them know why your child is screaming to increase their understanding and acceptance for those of us in the autism community.
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