It is loud, frustrating, completely out of control, exhausting and sometimes even scary. A meltdown that sweeps the child as well as everyone and everything in its path is common in children with autism. It is dreaded by many parents as well as the children.
In the early days following my son Ethan’s diagnosis with autism, such meltdowns were a common occurrence. One of the most memorable happened at the largest indoor shopping mall this side of town. It was on a Saturday, in winter, when it seems like the whole world converges at that mall. We were only going to one shop to buy a helmet and then straight back home, just the two of us. We never made it into the shop; he had a meltdown near the door.
I was too absorbed in keeping Ethan safe and out of the way to notice the throngs of shoppers passing by. I did notice, however, the polished, black boots of the mall’s security guards. They were particularly close to our faces seeing as we were on the floor, close and very shiny. I looked at them for a moment, wondering who had summoned them; a concerned or an annoyed shopper?
Meltdowns take a toll on caregivers who often struggle with how to handle them. In the beginning, Ethan’s meltdowns would leave me feeling exhausted and defeated. Since his meltdowns were quite common, I was pretty much always exhausted and defeated. It was only when I developed a strategy for dealing with them that I was able to sail through even his most spectacular meltdowns. This three-part approach transformed both of our lives, and I continue to rely on it:
1. Don’t take it personally.
It’s easy to take a meltdown personally when you’re the one on the receiving end of the glass-shattering screams, punches, kicks and bites. On top of that, you’re also the one tasked with minimizing damage to property, keeping yourself and everyone else safe — including the epicenter of the meltdown, your child. Above all, it is you who is tasked with helping your child regain composure, because when a child with autism is in the middle of a meltdown, they may be unable to regain control on their own.
Yes, you may be the one bearing the brunt of your child’s meltdown, but it really isn’t personal. You just happen to be the closest target; it could have been anyone or anything. Remember that at a certain point the child lost all control and desperately needs to regain control over the enormous force that has taken control of them. They are probably even more terrified than the little kids who are peeping from behind their parents’ tightly clutched legs.
The meltdown is in no way directed at you.
2. Distance yourself from the meltdown.
Allow your mind to take you away from the meltdown to a place of rest, quiet and peace. This can be a real or imaginary place. My escape was always a beach in Tofino, British Columbia, that I had visited during my pregnancy. When you allow your mind to go to that beautiful, peaceful place, you avoid being emotionally and psychologically sucked into the vortex of the meltdown. From that safe distance, you view the meltdown happening near you with detachment, as you would if the child involved was someone else’s. You remain neutral and able to focus on containing the meltdown while remaining relatively unaffected by it. In addition when you detach yourself from the meltdown, your emotions don’t feed into it, and it dies down much faster.
This ability to mentally distance myself has not only helped me deal with meltdowns but also with other difficult situations. Parents of children with special needs are all too familiar with insensitive, judgmental remarks from family, friends and even complete strangers. Often such remarks are uttered while they are already dealing with a meltdown! By distancing myself from thoughtless comments, I am able to hear them but not allow them to affect me. It’s like having my own protective shield.
3. Know it will come to an end.
All meltdowns eventually end when their energy runs out. They are utterly exhausting for the child. Simply knowing that a meltdown has to end keeps you steady and allows you to quickly regain the control that your child has lost.
This summer, my three-step approach to handling meltdowns proved invaluable under extremely stressful conditions. As soon as we boarded the plane for one of our 11-hour flights, my sleep-deprived son had a meltdown. It was our first trip overseas, and the brief rest at the hotel had not been adequate. Even with the judgmental, snide remarks of some of our fellow passengers in the background, I was able to calm him down before we took off and avoided the very real possibility of being asked to disembark. I was thankful for this tried and tested method that had seen me through countless meltdowns before.
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