You will see throughout this blog the word meltdown appears from time to time. I thought it might be worth explaining what a meltdown is- or at least what I mean when I say it!
Often people who see one of my Autistic kids have a meltdown call what they see a tantrum. I've been accused of letting them get away with things that I shouldn't, I've been told I just need to discipline better, and other equally unhelpful things. My Autistic kids do have tantrums. A meltdown is different. It can be tricky to get to know the difference, but there is one.
A tantrum is what happens when a child doesn't get what they want and so they misbehave.
A meltdown is what happens when an already sensitive sensory system becomes overloaded, and the child's "fight or flight" response kicks in.
In many Autistic kids, mine included, one of their problems is that their nervous systems do not function the way a "normal" persons does. They exist in a constant state of heightened arousal. Light is often too bright, sound is often too loud, touch is often too intense. For Autistic kids, even wearing clothes can cause problems.
My little G (4 1/2 yrs old) told me recently that "I don't like it when people touch my skin, especially on my head, because it feels too spicy". I had to go away and cry. To think that the burning sensation I get in my mouth when I eat spicy food is possibly what she feels when I hug her is heartbreaking. When she is having a rough day, she changes clothes numerous times in a row, looking for something that feels right. She won't eat certain foods because they feel wrong in her mouth. She seeks something to do that helps her to shut out all unnecessary stimulation. Sometimes she just wants to watch tv. Sometimes she goes into her room and shuts the door and closes the curtains and looks at things with a torch. Sometimes she wants music on so she can spin and bounce to it. Spinning and bouncing seem to help her ground herself.
So you can imagine, with this as background, that when I take her to the shops- where it is bright and loud and old ladies want to touch her hair and tell her she is cute- that it might be difficult for her to maintain her composure. In the past she has screamed at me, hit me, pushed me, run away and hidden inside a rack of clothes (this one she did a few times actually!! I never thought I'd need to buy one of those child leashes before G came along), she has laid on the floor across the supermarket aisle and refused to move then made a fuss (mading it look like I was kidnapping her) when I lifted her up. None of these things have happened because I told her she couldn't have something. They happen when her sensory system goes into overload and she can't cope anymore. She is too young yet to be able to know when it is about to happen and give me some warning. It just happens. She has a meltdown. I have two choices when this happens in public. I can swallow my pride, pick her up (adding to her distress by touching her) in order to remove her and make all the judging adults nearby more comfortable. Or I can swallow my pride, and sit there with her and wait it out while she struggles to regain her equilibrium. It can take one minute or ten.
Now this is not something that I just accept and am unwilling to do something about. There are things I do with G to help her with this. When she is calm, we use what are known as social stories. We talk about what happened and how things turned out, and explore possibilities of different ways to deal with things to get different outcomes. We practice phrases that we can use when we are upset. We talk about things we can do to help us feel better without yelling or hurting other people. Honestly- it is hard work trying to teach her these strategies, and realistically it will be years before she is actually able to use them without help. But I have to start now to give her a chance of getting them well before she needs to be able to do them consistently without me. The things you and I learn by osmosis, the things we just assimilate, G has to rote learn. One thing at a time. And what makes it so much harder is that the moments she has available to her to practice in are when her body is reacting to a small stimulus as though it has just been in a car accident. So she has a meltdown. And really, I don't blame her!