When I Realized Why My Son Melts Down at Home but Not at School

Tonight my son walked through the door from school, and immediately I knew. He didn’t have to say or do anything. I just knew.

Call it mother’s intuition, or call it years and years of practice, but I knew something was wrong. It was the delayed effect. My son has had a tricky day at school. He has held it together for nearly seven hours. Then he walks through the front door, and bam!

He’s somewhere safe and familiar, and he can’t contain the pressure anymore.

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It creeps out of every fiber of his being. His face is tense, and he has red cheeks. His body is stiff and awkward. His words are fast and loud, and he’s agitated. He’s hungry, he’s not hungry. He wants a snack but not what’s in the cupboard. So he gets angry and swears because he’s not in control of his body anymore. He wants to say hello to the dogs, but their overexcitement is too much for him, so he’s too rough with them and he gets cross with himself. I ask him how he’s feeling, and it’s like there is a red fog surrounding him. He can’t process what I’m saying. His sisters walk in chatting and laughing. They sound like a crowd of people to him, and he shouts to them to be quiet. They snap back at him as only sisters do, and wham — the volcano explodes. We have liftoff.

Meltdown. There’s no turning back now. It all has to come out.

Then comes the exhaustion — for him and for me. He can’t reflect on it because it’s all just too much. He just needs to recharge now, as do I. It’s so hard being a mom on the receiving end of the delayed effect because it holds no prisoners, and it doesn’t care who it hurts in the process. So I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel for my son.

As his mom, I know there would have been telltale signs throughout the day. But they’re small clues that can be easily missed, as he would have been largely compliant, so therefore no one would have realized there was any problem. But I know as the day progressed, his complexion would have become paler as the energy sapped out of him with each passing hour.

He may have struggled to eat his lunch due to high anxiety. A nervous giggle would have squeaked out when his teachers tried to speak to him. He would have put his head down on the table during lessons, or possibly rocked back and forward on his chair to calm himself down. And as the pressure mounted and the clock ticked toward home time, there may have even been some finger picking and sleeve chewing.

My son shows these signs of stress through his body language and gestures. He can’t always communicate his needs verbally, so they can get missed. And to be honest, I don’t think he’s able to recognize this rising pressure himself until it’s too late most of the time.

The delayed effect can be a common challenge facing many children on the autism spectrum. Some children are able to contain their feelings all day at school, with the teacher blissfully unaware there’s a problem. However, the stress hormones are slowly building and building inside these kids. This creates a Jekyll and Hyde sort of situation that can put incredible pressure on families — especially if teachers don’t understand or believe what the parents are telling them. So let’s think about it this way for a minute…

Imagine yourself as a bottle of pop. Your ingredients include autism, sensory processing difficulties, ADHD and a hidden speech and language delay. The world’s a confusing place, and your difficulties are largely hidden to the wider world, so not many people understand things from your perspective.

This is your day:

Going to school is just one big worry for you… so give that bottle a shake!

You get to school and your teacher says, “Let’s start a new topic.” What does that mean? … Give it a shake!

You don’t understand what you have to do… shake it up!

You make a mistake… shake, shake, shake!

The lights in class are buzzing, and it’s annoying… shake it a little more!

It’s assembly. You have to sit still while your insides are wiggling and jiggling around… shake it up!

The timetable changes and it’s not math like it should be, it’s now music… and shake again!

The car gets stuck in traffic, and the wrong radio station is on in the car… that’s a few more shakes!

You get home and the lid blows off with the pressure!

That’s the delayed effect. It’s a real thing… trust me. The times over the years I’ve felt so confused and isolated when teachers have said to me, “Well, that is a surprise. We don’t see any of that here at school.” Or I’ve heard, “Well, he can behave for me, so maybe you’re being too soft on him.” I spent many a sleepless night wondering if it was me. Was it my parenting? But I am his mom, and my gut instinct is always right. I knew there was something my child was struggling with, and all I had to do was understand what his behavior was telling me. My child explodes at home with me because I’m his safe place. I am predictable and calm, and he can really be himself at home. He is fully accepted at home.

So this tells me there are many things that can be done in order to reduce this build-up of stress hormones for children like my son — making them feel more safe and accepted for who they are. And that means really embracing their individual needs. Not just trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

A version of this post originally appeared on Kathybrodie.com. Follow this journey on A Slice of Autism.


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